Cubicle Etiquette, Or How to Survive Life in a Cube

Funny how some of the same people who so often want us to think outside the box see no irony in forcing us to work within one. Yet—believe it or not—cubicles were initially developed to enhance employee productivity, not frustrate it. First marketed in 1968 as the “Action Office” by Herman Miller—an office furniture company based in Zeeland, Michigan—cubicles were meant to give employees more privacy than the open bullpen offices common in the first half of the 20th century. (Think of newsrooms full of clacking typewriters.) Cubes also were supposed to give Information Age workers a maximum of vertical space (i.e., walls with cork boards) where they could pin up work or other reminders. No more would employee space be limited to a desktop (the non-software variety) and an inbox. (In this regard, the cubicle has probably delivered on its promise.) Finally, cubes were supposed to promote quicker communication between employees because eliminating (real) walls between offices would enhance the free flow of ideas (Schlosser, “Cubicles: The Great Mistake,” 2006).

In fact, cubicles for a while were emblematic of the egalitarian, non-hierarchical, collaborative work style embraced by Silicon Valley software companies, says David Franz in “The Moral Life of Cubicles” (2008).  Companies such as Intel eliminated not only private offices but also time cards and dress codes, says Franz, all in an effort to break down barriers that hindered communication and the development of new ideas.

But economics trumped ideas of employee equality and individual creativity. For example, cubicles were originally supposed to be accompanied by baffled ceilings that reduce noise. But such accoutrements were not attractive to budget-conscious employers, who soon realized that modular offices could be reconfigured to pack ever more employees into smaller spaces (Wikipedia). According to Franz, average office space per worker in the U.S. dropped from 250 square feet in 2000 to 190 square feet in 2005 (2008).

So if you are one of the 40 million U.S. employees who toil in pre-fabricated office furniture systems (a.k.a., open space environments), how can you survive, and thrive, in such close proximity to your co-workers (Schlosser, “The Great Escape,” 2006)? The following “cubicle etiquette” may make life easier during working hours.

  • Respect co-workers’ time. Don’t interrupt unnecessarily. Email questions so they can answer without having to drop everything. If they are on the telephone, don’t hover over them. Instead wait until they are free. Don’t plop in a chair in their cubicle and wait for them to acknowledge you. (To discourage visitors, get rid of the chair.)
  • Respect co-workers’ privacy. Knock before entering a cubicle. Act as if there is a door. Jill Bremer, an image consultant based in Oak Park, Illinois, cautions against sneaking up on someone who may not realize that you have entered his or her space. Instead, respect a co-worker’s cubicle as you would an office (2004).6
  • If you accidentally overhear a private, personal conversation, don’t let on. This little fiction may go a long way toward preserving good interpersonal relations.
  • Find a private space for private conversations. Co-workers don’t want to hear the details of your divorce, doctor’s appointments, etc., even if you don’t mind them overhearing. If you have to conduct a private conversation, take your cell phone (and the conversation) elsewhere.
  • Establish a system to let co-workers know when you are available. Bremer suggests posting a flag or other signal to let others know when you are available (red light, green light?).
  • Don’t steal from co-workers’ desktops. Resist the temptation to appropriate notepads, pens and other office supplies from co-workers’ desks. If you must borrow something, leave a note indicating where it is.
  • Flextime or telecommuting may help ease crowded conditions. Staggered work schedules increase the odds of unoccupied work spaces next door. Would your workplace consider such a scheme?
  • Keep food odors under control. Eat hot food elsewhere. In fact, eat elsewhere, period. Co-workers don’t want to hear munching and crunching.
  • Remember that heavy cologne or perfume may bother co-workers. While not exactly an odor, heavy scent really bothers some people. Keep it light.
  • Keep noise to a minimum. This is known as “sound courtesy.” It’s basically common sense. For example,
    • Keep voices low.
    • Take your cell phone with you so it doesn’t ring (forever) in your absence.
    • Switch your cell phone ring to vibrate.
    • Limit the use of speaker phones. Hearing both parties to a conversation may prove even more distracting to co-workers.
    • Use headphones if you want to listen to music.
    • Don’t shout across cubicles. Walk over to talk to someone. Or email him/ her.
    • Consider alternating lunch breaks with co-workers so everyone has some quiet time.
    • Avoid gum popping, humming and other habits that may annoy your neighbors.
    • Use conference rooms or other non-cubicle locations for meetings. Some employers have (largely) soundproof minute rooms, hour rooms, and day rooms that can be used (respectively) for quick, private conversations, traditional meetings and daylong collaborations (Gamonal, 2008).
  • Decorate and personalize, but remember that some humor may offend your co-workers. This, of course, varies by person and by office. Proceed with caution until you know how others will react.
  • Stay home if you are sick. Germs, like noise and odors, respect no cubicle boundaries. Work from home if you must. Or just stay home and recover.
  • If you’re a manager, realize that poorly configured cubicles can be penny wise and pound foolish. Shane Artim, writing for the American Society of Association Executives, a Washington, D.C. trade group, quotes Audrey Kaplan and Stan Aronoff, authors of Total Workplace Performance: Rethinking the Office Environment: “At its best, the office environmental is a seamless background that the occupants hardly notice. At its worst, it is a major obstacle to productive effort—a place where no real work can be done. People can be found hiding out in cafeterias, empty conference rooms and at home to escape office facilities that are too disruptive, too uncomfortable or that make them feel too unwell to do their mind’s best work.” Artim adds, “The mere fact that people are taking these steps to preserve personal space is symptomatic of a problem” (Artim 2000).

While cubicles are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. After all, sales were up 11 percent in 2005 (Schlosser, “Cubicles: The Great Mistake,” 2006). It’s possible that employers will eventually move away from them simply to—you guessed it—save money. Schlosser, writing for Fortune magazine, says that computer hardware maker Cisco Systems recently determined that because of “workforce mobility,” 35 percent of its cubicles are vacant at any given time. She quotes a Cisco vice president for real estate who says that a new “Connected Workspace” program that allows employees to work anywhere in the building has increased employee satisfaction while cutting office space (i.e., cubicle) needs. According to Schlosser, Hewlett Packard expects to save $230 million in real estate costs in 2007 by switching to a similar program (“Cubicles: The Great Mistake,” 2006). So employees may be eventually set free from their cubicles, not by magnanimous employers but by cold, hard-headed economics.

Works Cited