Cubicle Insanity: Is It Getting Better or Worse?

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One of the sad things that happened in the '70s as a result of a massive focus on equal opportunities is that HR stopped being a function that was focused on employee productivity and care, and instead became largely a compliance function that ensured certain laws were met.


Many of the advancements that were leading to better employee placement, better working conditions, and the balance that was building between employee care and economics were virtually destroyed. And it felt, at least to me, that we'd almost dropped back into the Middle Ages.


This has led to what has been a largely static set of practices interspersed with really stupid events that often have me wondering if insanity is running rampant in some companies.


The latest instance of this is an idea moving around some companies to create super cubicles and place employees and their managers in the same really big cube.


Dropping Back Before the '60s


Back before the '60s you can see that a common practice placed low-level clerical employees in huge rooms, at equally spaced desks, all lined up, with their manager sitting in front. The layout was much like it is in an old-style country classroom, with the teacher up front and all of their subordinates all lined up nicely in subservient rows facing him (and it was generally a him back then).


The problem with that arrangement was it was incredibly noisy, folks couldn't be very creative, it implied a lack of trust, and it sure didn't foster collaboration. In fact, your location in the room could be connected to your stature in the group, which probably fostered a lot of the wrong kind of competition.


People who were important got offices where they could be alone with their thoughts, create a personal space that was less stressful and more comfortable, and maintain some level of privacy. Granted, we likely all have stories of executives who misused their offices (I remember one married guy who used his for passionate dates and really needed curtains, and then a new job, and probably a new wife). The office was a reward and office location, even today, is generally more representative of someone's stature than anything to do with actually doing the job better.


1960s: The Cubicle Age


The guy credited with inventing the cubicle, Robert Propsi, now refers to his invention as a "monolithic insanity." It's kind of interesting that he spent a massive amount of time creating a new working environment that likely could have improved productivity and health greatly, but when it was implemented, most of what he had built into the design was left out.


Currently, he feels the result should have been killed at birth and is an abomination going against everything he wanted to accomplish in the design. Of course, we all know Scott Adams, Dilbert's creator, is the leading resource on what is bad with cubicles.


What happened is that costs took control, and companies saw the basic concept as a way to cheaply put a lot of people in any space. It evidently was assisted by a change in the way capital expenditures in the United States could be depreciated; you could write off furniture more quickly than walls. Cubicles were furniture.


Kind of makes you feel warm and fuzzy with regard to the finance department, huh?


Before you burn your CFO in effigy, realize that this started happening in the '60s and kind of peaked in the '70s, which should be long before your CFO ever got the job.


Of course, your CFO could look out at all his or her people and see that their working conditions suck and fix the problem. Now you can burn that effigy.


For those of you who don't work in cubicles, this film, which Intel actually paid for, showing a visit by Conan O'Brien to Intel, is a classic. At one point, he goes into the building, sees the cubicles, and suddenly seems to realize he has entered some kind of employee hell where only the insane would work, or be incarcerated.


Of course we can write about how bad cubicles are until we are blue in the fingers.


What strikes me as amazing is the number of executives that have come up through the ranks hating cubicles who haven't, upon achieving power, eliminated them. I guess the economics are too strong, and, then again, it isn't as if they have to work in the darned things, right? Except, if you think about Intel, there they do. Here is a place that advertises for employees with a picture of their cubicles -- kind of a mixed message, don't you think?


HermanMiller does at least appear to be trying to improve the cubicle, but who in his right mind would make it worse? It even has a product you can use to protect your privacy while driving the folks closest to you nuts.


For the life of me, I can't actually imagine anyone working in a cubicle if they had a choice. But hey, it must make home seem so much better and, you know, change is rough ...


The Latest Cubicle Insanity


Given what a total piece of crap cubicles are, you have to wonder what we'd call someone who actually worked to make them worse.


While president of the United States comes to mind, the reality is that our first choice would probably be less prestigious.


How about if we put a whole bunch of employees in one big cubicle along with their manager? That way, we can combine the things we hated about the office before the '60s with the things we hated ever since, and create something that you wouldn't even want to think about stepping in, or into.


That is what this new super-cubicle idea is about. Now, if it weren't for the fact that the resulting noise would drive everyone in every super cubicle nuts, the increased collaboration that might result from a close-knit team might actually be interesting. However, I would expect -- and were I in the same room, pray -- that these collaboration activities would move to a conference room where the noise could be contained.


Granted, the manager can make sure no one is browsing the Web when they aren't supposed to, or making personal calls, or inappropriately picking their nose, but for all but the last there are other, vastly less invasive ways to do that.


If the true goal is to get people to quit or to telecommute (which is picking up strongly), this might actually help do that. But often the companies that do this kind of thing don't allow telecommuting, suggesting only one long-term outcome.


Wrapping Up


A number of companies, and Google comes to mind, are stepping up to find creative ways to create environments where people want to work even if they have to be in cubicles. It's somewhat ironic the amount of effort some companies put into having resources on campus so employees don't waste time at lunch or running personal errands, but still have working environments that even cows are refusing to go into.


Personally, I think there should be a special place in hell for any executive who, after working in and hating cubicles for years, gains the authority to make them better and then makes them worse.


Just remember, if you are in cubicle hell, there are two words to try: "home office." And if those two magic words don't work, try "new employer." Why in the world would you want to spend your life in cubicle hell? Why would you want your people to?