A Snapshot from 'Super-Cubicle' Hell

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I once worked at a publishing house where a huge tenet of the corporate culture was that every employee had an office. Not a temporary, fold-down office, either -- I mean drywall + hinged door = office. Every employee, regardless of job role.


It was one of the most dysfunctional working environments I have ever experienced. Deadlines were routinely missed by weeks, not just days. Every kind of workplace drama, from salacious to misdemeanor, ran rife through the place. Obviously, there were some great people working there who were very productive. But as many if not more people were basically on auto-pilot to nowhere, at least professionally speaking.


I used to blame a lot of that on those private offices, which I thought of as little cauldrons of professional maleficence. But now I realize that these problems were part of a broader cultural malaise, and that the offices were just the physical, tangible things I could blame.


I was reminded of this again as I was editing a blog post by Rob Enderle this morning, railing against the history of the broadly reviled cubicles and the newer idea of "super cubicles," in which managers are grouped with their teams in what are now fashionably called "open" and "collaborative" environments.


Let me make this clear -- I too dislike "gopher farm" cubicles, with their push-pin walls. Here at IT Business Edge, I and a lot of other managers cringed when we toured a possible new space that came with the things. Yuk. They really offer no privacy for employees -- in fact, they've always seemed to mock them with the pretense of privacy. Again, yuk.


But cubicles don't make your manager stupid, and they don't make your pay scale stink. They don't dismiss your ideas and promote tenure over competence.


If I sound a little defensive, it's because many of us here at the home offices do, in fact, work in what I suppose would be called "super cubicles." They came with the space we lease in a converted historic building, so it's not like it was a major cultural decision on our part -- we are a young company, after all. It's not quite as glamorous as the Ethospace system the inventor of the cubicle is now pushing, but I think it fits in with the model.


ITBE Workspace


This is a quick snapshot of the vacated space where our camera-shy edit group works. Not as much natural light as in the Ethospace marketing pics, but you get the point.


On the new "super cubicle" premise, Rob writes:

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.

I don't think our edit team feels oppressed in any way because our Editor in Chief, Kachina Dunn, sits amongst them. That's because Kachina is not oppressive -- she's the chief, but we work very hard here to make sure that means being a resource, not a tyrant.

Disclaimer: I have always liked open work environments. I grew up in newsrooms, which are very open (noisy and confrontational, too) environments. So my perspective is skewed, I concede.

I asked Kachina to do a quick straw poll this morning of how folks felt about their physical work environments. The result was an average of 6 on a scale of 1-to-10. I can't imagine anyone who doesn't get to hitch rides on the Google Party Plane rating much of anything about work a 10, but that ranking certainly indicates that our team is not totally crazy about the office layout.

I also asked her to gather some comments about what would make for a better physical working environment. The results:

  • Not sitting with my back to people.
  • A semi-private location where everyone doesn't overhear everything you say -- being on the phone for sales calls, etc.
  • A temperate climate would be a plus, it is constantly freezing and never seems to settle at a certain temperature, unless that temperature is of course below zero.
  • Would have been/would be nice to get a choice -- even if just an option among a handful of existing colors/styles for individual cubes/pods.
  • I'm used to working in open configurations of desks, but I've never worked at a place where voices carry throughout the whole building.
  • More privacy.
  • Better lighting (more natural light).
  • More flexibility in how workstation is set up.

Obviously, some of these issues relate to the furniture; some of them are more about the layout and acoustics of the building itself (and the temperature in here does get wacky). And to be clear, we do have several conference rooms and a couple of offices, complete with networked tech, where employees can go to get some privacy when it's needed. Some of our executives (our CFO, of course) have private offices -- in fact, some first-level employees have private offices, too. Some VPs, myself included, work in the open areas. It's just the way the space worked out.


But clearly, there are some real issues here.


On the flip side, we support flexible work schedules and telecommuting. We're basically a performance-based company that doesn't spend a lot of time getting into employees' hair, unless they aren't performing. In the four-plus years we've been in business, we've had three people leave us, and those instances have largely been to pursue great opportunities or get closer to family. We've even had a bright young intern who we subjected to a hellish cubicle come back to work full-time for us, in the same diabolic space.


So, yes, cubicles and "super cubicles" are not ideal. But no physical workspace is. And there are actually ways to make work enjoyable and worthwhile that prevent whatever physical workspace issues employees might have from dominating the culture.


All except for the freeze-out HVAC. That's gotta stop.