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Office Cubicle Survival: Courtesy, Productivity, and Stress

Many workers display collections and knick-knacks in their cubicles in an attempt to make their office spaces seem like a "home away from home."

Many workers display collections and knick-knacks in their cubicles in an attempt to make their office spaces seem like a "home away from home."

Welcome to the Cubicle Habitat

If you've ever been crammed into a 6' x 6' cubicle and expected to be productive and perky, then you quickly understand why those walls are padded!

You might overhear a coworker talking with her divorce attorney, mother, auto insurance adjuster, or doctor's office. You might smell dirty feet or someone's lunch wafting.

You could be peered at over the top of the cubicle wall (called "prairie dogging") or may have to strain to hear your own phone conversation over a nearby paper shredder or loud-talker.

Welcome to the cubicle habitat, at the corner of Corporate Thriftiness and Coworker Oversharing! All this, and you'll still need to meet short deadlines, maintain office harmony, and satisfy customers.

Now, put your shoes back on and keep reading!

Shrinking Work Space: Feeling Hemmed In

Pressed for space, cost-conscious companies are packing employees into ever-smaller office work areas so that in several years, the average total workspace allocation for employees in North American companies will be under 100 square feet.1 Sound small? That's down from 500 to 700 square feet of average workspace in the 1970s, when the cubicle came of age.2

Do you work in cubicle row?

Do you work in cubicle row?

Origin of the Cubicle

When designer Robert Propst pioneered the cubicle concept in 1964, his intent was benign enough. Propst sought to break up the uncomfortable bullpen-style layout that was commonplace in offices during the 1960s and before. At that time, lower-level workers sat in monotonous rows of desks with minimal privacy and room for movement, and at the end of the day, they all cleared their desks completely, leaving behind a sea of empty, sterile sameness.3

Working for office furnishings manufacturer Herman Miller, Propst envisioned a cubicle (or "Action Office") that was a far cry from its modern reality. His original idea included work surfaces of flexible heights that even permitted occasional standing, as well as display surfaces inviting the user to embellish the workspace with his or her own identity.

Additionally, Propst's concept also included partitions, desks, and shelves that could be fluidly assembled and reassembled. Such spaces were intended to eliminate organizational status and hierarchy within workspaces.

They were also intended to facilitate interaction among employees via shared communal areas and semi-enclosed spaces that used 120-degree angles (rather than today's boxes, rows, and corridors)4,5. That was the plan, at least.

A Good Idea Gone Awry

Corporate America soon realized, however, that Propst's Action Office could be used to maximize the cost-effectiveness of high-rent office space by placing workers even closer together. The design that was intended to facilitate interaction backfired in that it tended to isolate employees in increasingly smaller "boxes" of corporate real estate.

New tax rules for depreciating assets further favored the cubicle. Office furniture and fixtures depreciated more quickly than building spaces, thereby allowing companies to recoup their investments more quickly.6 There was no turning back.

Cubicle farms can feel like rat mazes.  You might need help finding your way.

Cubicle farms can feel like rat mazes. You might need help finding your way.

Ode to My Cubicle Neighbor

Cubicle neighbor across our shared wall,

I know you so well, yet barely at all.

Ahh . . . you've got your shoes off again, and I have this hunch

You're enjoying tuna salad with onions for lunch.

You pop up your head, move along now . . . just go!

We snoop through your desk when you're gone, don't you know?

And the meeting by speaker phone you have scheduled for three?

I'll listen right in. Don't worry 'bout me.

While I'm on the phone, you wait for me and lurk

With all that's going on, how can I work?

Our co-worker called the doctor, says she needs to be seen

For an important situation, if you know what I mean.

I sit and listen to the sounds of clicking, chomping, tapping, chatting, singing.

And with the surprise visits and staring

The unintended oversharing

It's all a bit much.

Oh, the cubicle with its padded wall

Little bigger than a restroom stall.

Cubicle neighbor, across the soft divide

No secrets among us, no place to hide.

Cubicle neighbor across our shared wall,

I know you so well, yet barely at all.

Working in a cubicle can feel like you are under constant surveillance.

Working in a cubicle can feel like you are under constant surveillance.

Unintended Consequences on Employee Productivity and Stress

Placing workers in such close-quartered cubicle environments may foster a number of unintended consequences:

  • decreases in work performance
  • poorer quality interactions with colleagues
  • psychological stress from the feeling of constant surveillance and repeated disruptions

People tend to perceive greater levels of stress when they are faced with unpredictable and uncontrollable stressors. The cubicle environment offers both. It limits privacy while introducing a variety of environmental distractions, including sights, smells, sounds, and physical intrusions from office mates, passersby, and others.

Whereas it is more difficult for an employee to refocus on work tasks following a visual distraction, auditory distractions are more common in cubicle environments.7 Noise is one of the most persistent and irritating sources of stress in today's office workplace. Studies have found that noise negatively affects several aspects of work task performance, including:

  • decreased accuracy
  • poorer short-term memory
  • greater reported levels of fatigue.8

Under noisy conditions, employees have more difficulty concentrating, and they need to expend greater effort to complete their work tasks.

It may be cost-effective to pack workers into ever-shrinking cubicles, but is it a healthy or productive way to work?

It may be cost-effective to pack workers into ever-shrinking cubicles, but is it a healthy or productive way to work?

Shut Up and Let Me Think

Brief background speech, such as the short, intermittent bursts of conversation in an office, have been found to be most disruptive—as opposed to either speech that is constant or non-speech sounds (e.g., noisy office machines). Furthermore, noise distraction has larger negative effects when one is working on a task that is written/oral communication in nature or that requires high degrees of concentration.9

Studies have demonstrated that hearing only one side to a conversation—as one frequently does when a cubicle neighbor is on the phone—is more distracting than overhearing a two-sided conversation.10,11 Thus, some types of work distractions are more disruptive than others, and some types of work may be an especially poor fit for the cubicle environment.

Possible side effects of working in a distraction-prone office include:

  • a weaker immune system
  • more sickness-related absences
  • increases in blood pressure12,13

One experiment found that workers were less motivated to make ergonomic adjustments to their workstations under noisy conditions, which over the long term could put them at greater risk for musculoskeletal disorders.14 Additionally, employees are likely to feel irritated at the source of frequent distractions—namely, their colleagues.

It's enough to make you want to work for yourself.

It's enough to make you want to work for yourself.

Prevent "Oh, No You Didn't" Moments With Cubicle Courtesy

So just how does one flourish amidst cubicle chaos? The answer may lie in making the environment more controllable and predictable through cubicle courtesy. The following tips can help lower the stress of working in a cubicle and maintain positive working relationships and productivity.

Rethink eating onions and other smelly foods in your cube, and tone down any loud sounds you make while eating.

Rethink eating onions and other smelly foods in your cube, and tone down any loud sounds you make while eating.

Smells: The Nose Knows

Don't eat smelly foods at your desk.

What is delicious to you is simply disgusting to someone else.15 For example: onions, fish, pickles, and anything served warm.

Instead, try to stick to less intrusive-smelling food. Better yet: take a few minutes to eat lunch away from your desk. Use the time to decompress from your work. Eating at your desk can also result in accidental spills and drips on work documents and equipment. (I spilled an orange soda on my laptop keyboard once, and it was never the same!)

Wear perfume/cologne in moderation, or not at all.

One person's scent is another's migraine-inducing fragrance sensitivity. Coworkers may not like your fragrance, or you might have become accustomed to the scent and lost all perspective on the amount required to be noticed.

Be aware of your body odor.

Avoid taking your shoes off, no matter how achy your feet are. (Don't pretend those dogs don't bark!) And if you exercise at lunch, by all means, shower before returning to work.

Who is watching you work?

Who is watching you work?

There's no way you can carry on a private conversation when you have a co-worker sitting a few feet away.  Get used to it.  Courteous co-workers pretend they are not listening.

There's no way you can carry on a private conversation when you have a co-worker sitting a few feet away. Get used to it. Courteous co-workers pretend they are not listening.

Physical Intrusions

Don't "prairie dog" over the cube wall.

Prairie dogging refers to when an employee in a cubicle environment pops up in order to peer over the cube wall. They telescope around and often downwards on neighbors' desks. This act of surveillance is distracting to office mates. If you need to stretch or take a break, go for a brief walk instead and leave the workspace.

Be mindful of interpersonal space.

Avoid hovering above a coworker while he or she is on the phone; return later or leave him/her a brief note. Before entering a neighbor's cubicle, pretend there is a door and knock first. Never sneak up behind others.

Schedule time rather than popping in.

Rather than popping in for a request for help, advance book some time on your neighbor's calendar. Honor any time that he or she has blocked off for projects or lunch. Rather than launching right into conversation, ask if now is a good time. If you will be on a long phone call, prevent disruptions by telling coworkers in advance or by posting a note (e.g., "In a webinar until 2 p.m, please do not disturb").

Are you the guy who won't shut up, who throws stuff over cubicle walls, who puts his (smelly) feet on his desk, farts in his cube, listens to loud music, etc.?  Cut the crap.

Are you the guy who won't shut up, who throws stuff over cubicle walls, who puts his (smelly) feet on his desk, farts in his cube, listens to loud music, etc.? Cut the crap.

Sights: I Spy

Personalize your workspace tastefully.

Religious, risqué, political, and humorous items can easily offend.

Clean up your mess, especially if you eat at your desk.

In addition to being unsightly, food scraps and unemptied trash can attract vermin such as mice and ants.

Avoid gazing at others' computer screens.

Get a computer privacy screen to prevent wandering eyes from looking at the content on your computer screen.

Store personal items out of sight.

Employees have been known to store deodorant, vitamins, tooth floss, collectibles, and even prescription medicine on desk surfaces. Remember you are in a business environment rather than your "home away from home."

Respect the property and space of absent office mates.

The work area is small enough that they will likely notice. Don't raid their desk drawers for office supplies or allow "squatters" in their cubicle without permission.

Shhhh!  Keep the noise down.

Shhhh! Keep the noise down.

Sounds: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Use your "inside voice."

If you're a loud talker, double down on efforts to moderate your voice volume, especially if you also have a flair for the dramatic. Your cube neighbors will really appreciate it.

Pretend you don't eavesdrop.

In such a close environment, you're bound to overhear confidential and personal phone calls, whether you mean to or not. Try not to acknowledge the content of what you are hearing. Also, avoid chiming in during neighbors' phone calls, and never repeat what you heard.

Use earphones or a headset if listening to webinars or music.

Your taste in music is as unique as you are. Save your humming or singing for the drive home.

Keep personal calls brief.

With frequent or prolonged personal calls, step away from your desk to somewhere private (or use text messaging when possible). Coworkers may not appreciate your applying for a mortgage or arranging for that upcoming vacation while they have pressing deadlines to meet.

Take noise-inducing technology gadgets with you when you leave, or turn them off.

If you'll be in a long meeting or at lunch, turn down the ringer to your office phone, and take your noisy gadgets with you.

Watch your language.

Limit social gossip, and use business-appropriate language.
Take meetings somewhere else. Take meetings, one-on-one training sessions, and any need requiring the use of a speaker phone to a private meeting room.

Get up from your seat rather than calling out to a coworker over the cube wall.

It's not just the two of you in the room. Consider all the other people whose work you are interrupting.

Be mindful of repetitive noises you are making.

That includes excessive throat clearing, clicking of long fingernails, chomping, loud yawns and sighs, gum-smacking, and knuckle cracking.

By following these tips, you can bring more control and predictability to the distraction-prone cubicle work environment. This will reduce overall stress, enhance productivity, and help you maintain positive work relationships. Who knows? Maybe you'll be so successful you'll work your way into an office one day!

Make your cubicle your home away from home.  Customize it the best you can.  You've got to live here at least 40 hours a week, so you might as well love it.

Make your cubicle your home away from home. Customize it the best you can. You've got to live here at least 40 hours a week, so you might as well love it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 FlourishAnyway


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on February 16, 2020:

Crazy Tracy - The first time I had a cubicle was when I changed jobs to a Fortune 500 company (from a government job where I had an office). The manager at the corporation was impressed that my cubicle was so "large" and I was disgusted that I would be put in these four walls with no doors, a maze with all the other working rats. It was a definite negative. I heard details of people's dating lives, the gory details of their divorces (one woman was being stalked), medical and financial problems, you name it.

Crazy Tracy on February 14, 2020:

I love this article! After having had real offices for the past 40 years, our company downsized and we now have cubicles (and one bathroom). My colleagues have forgotten that they can't just shut the door, and all conversations are heard -- not that we're trying to eavesdrop. Even better is the co-worker who will start snoring at his desk. The food issue has already been addressed, and the most someone can have at their desk is a cup of coffee or tea. The downside is that the breakroom only holds six people, and feels crowded if there are four, so it's easier to go outside.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on August 23, 2018:

Oh, Chris, Open office spaces like the old newsroom concepts are awful. I agree with you. They make cubicles look glorious. I once didn't pursue a job further after an onsite visit where I saw an open office concept. Yuck.

Chris on August 23, 2018:

I would LOVE a cubicle.

Every office I've ever worked in, has been an "open office" design, and it's terrible. You think you've got no privacy in a cubicle? In an open office, everyone can literally see your screen, and you have zero privacy. On top of that, you can see everyone around you, which is incredible distracting. Everyone shares a single, long desk so anyone tapping on it will drive everyone nuts.

Cubicles may not be as great as discrete offices, but they're miles ahead of the horror of an open office.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 03, 2018:

Mary - Not at all. It's like being an adult in a playpen or a little cage.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 03, 2018:

It is laughable when you read about these cubicles but being in one of them is not fun at all. I hope they are now changing that.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 25, 2016:

Peggy - I felt penned in (literally) when I was in a cubicle farm. It was unpleasant.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 25, 2016:

After reading this I am glad that I never had to work in such an environment. Sounds terrible! I guess many people have to endure such work situations.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on September 04, 2015:

Have a great weekend, Savvy!

savvydating on September 04, 2015:

No problem. I understand about HP. You've been a great help and I appreciate it, Flourish!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on September 04, 2015:

Savvy - Something funky in HP land. All of a sudden 5 comments and a note to report a technical issue.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on September 04, 2015:

Savvy - He's THAT kind of co-worker. If all else fails, you could get some flowery air freshener and spray it when he brings his sandwich out.

savvydating on September 02, 2015:

I sent a response, but you may not have received it. I have spoken with him, but I will change my technique. Suffice it to say, "I am adjusting."

savvydating on September 02, 2015:

I did speak to him, but he just laughed. I'll try again one day when he is in a good mood. Otherwise, forget it. He will get upset. Luckily, the onions are not an everyday thing. He's a moody guy in general---except around the bosses. Ha!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on September 02, 2015:

If it bothers you a lot say something directly but professionally to him and request that he eat in the break area.

savvydating on September 02, 2015:

Hi Flouish Anyway,

I'm glad I sent another email. Weird things are going on with my email too. (sigh) Well, I'm still struggling with the guy whom the boss loves, and who eats onions! Well, I guess this is one battle I can't win. Ha!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on September 02, 2015:

Hi, Savvy, for some reason your comment was showing up in a funny way. They were wanting me to identify as spam or not. Thanks for alerting me with a second comment. I'd pick my battles of course, but if any important issue impacts more than one person or if the employee does not feel comfortable addressing their coworker directly, then go to the supervisor. In this circumstance, smells obviously impact others. Eating at the desk potentially impacts customers and coworkers and could also involve spills. You might wait for an especially stinky day.

savvydating on August 31, 2015:

It looks as though my comment didn't go through. Just checking. Every so often "things" on Hubpages come to a standstill. I had a question for you about HR ....

savvydating on August 30, 2015:

Hi Flourish. Great article. I can't say that I do any of those things, except to stop and talk once for a little while maybe or twice a week or so. When things get out of hand in our office, the office administrator sends out a general notice, which no one pays any attention to. My question is this: Should a boss be more specific and speak personally to those who constantly break rules, or who eat smelly foods and what have you? Or do you think the employees have to go to the supervisor and ask about themselves---which no one ever does. I find that, as a colleague, if I address the issue, my colleagues just act surprised or feel "it's not of my business. In short, whose job is it to address the cubicle issues? I would appreciate your feedback.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on October 15, 2013:

PegCole17 - I bet when you were in Facilities you heard all kinds of "reasons" why people needed offices rather than cubes, too. I would have been perfectly fine to have just put a lid over mine and call it a cave. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on October 15, 2013:

Ah yes, I worked in each of these situations: the open floor space concept where everyone could see everything we did (banking, mortgage company) and the cube farm where everyone could hear what we did. I actually worked in a Facilities Department where we designated who would get tall cubes and short cubes, then installed Haworth systems cubes. You've identified each of the down sides of these office environments perfectly! The perfume lover, the loud talker, the garlic eater, the stinky feet neighbors, the hoarders - all oblivious to their distractions in the work place. Brings back such memories...

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on September 23, 2013:

Crafty - Absolutely! Just because they had nothing to do didn't mean the rest of the group wasn't busy. I had a loud talker over the cube wall too who shared everything, every freaking thing about her personal and professional life and was all very emotional about it. Sometimes I went to the bathroom just to get away from her. Thanks for reading and commenting.

CraftytotheCore on September 23, 2013:

This entire Hub was delightful to read! The thing that used to get me the most working in an office was the people who would linger around talking while someone was preparing for a client meeting. ugh!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on June 16, 2013:

Mel, You have a similar experience. I had a coworker who didn't quite snore, but the typing and talking would completely cease. Things would go dead quiet. She was asleep again. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on June 15, 2013:

I think they are reducing cubie space so they can keep a better eye on us and make sure we are not messing around. I worked in a cubicle for about five years and I felt like the lord of realm in there, but I always got the 2:30 doldrums and had to get up and walk around. Did you mention "Don't snore in your cubicle?" One of my co-workers used to fall asleep every day and you could hear him snoring. He was close to retirement so he didn't care. Nice hub!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 28, 2013:

Thanks, rajan! So happy to have left the cubicle life behind!

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on May 28, 2013:

Fantastic hub and a beautiful poem that says it all so sweetly yet so profoundly.


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 20, 2013:

Thank you, Elias! I, too, have been "set free" from my sentence in the cubicle farm -- or rather, I escaped. Thanks for your read, vote and comment. Glad you could identify.

Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on May 20, 2013:

Great article! Congratulations! I could pretty much relate to the topic, I personally could not make it in such an environment, I resigned after less than 5 months&I am never ever going back in there! You have managed to accurately comprise all of the reasons why in this great hub! Voted up, interesting, useful & shared!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 24, 2013:

Thank you, Stephanie Henkel & Insightful Tiger, for stopping by and for your comments. With the stress and productivity downsides of cubicles, you do have to wonder whether they truly are as economical as companies think they are.

Insightful Tiger on April 24, 2013:

My husband tells me about the office issues at his job and I think everyone should read this article before going to work at a place like that. The "Ode to my cubicle neighbor" was funny thank you for sharing!

Stephanie Henkel from USA on April 23, 2013:

As you mentioned in your article, working in the close environment of office cubicles is not always easy. Your suggestions for survival are excellent! I worked in an office where several cubicles were just outside my office door. Sometimes people in cubicles forget that everything they say can be overheard by everyone in the vicinity even if they can't see them. I loved the poem you included...we know you too well and not well enough! Great hub!

europewalker on April 23, 2013:

I worked for a company for 24 years. The first five we were in open style areas, after that they went to the cubicle style set up. To me they were like little prison cells. Unfortunately mine was right next to my boss. Her cubicle was bigger but that didn't prevent me from hearing all of her conversations with other employees about their work reviews or personal business. Couldn't wait to take early retirement! Great read, voted up.

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on April 23, 2013:

I'm in a cubicle for the first time with my current job and it is a new experience entirely. For starters, my entire department isn't together and with the exception of one fellow department worker, the rest of the people I'm with are in another department. I don't have much of a problem except that it seems to be too much noise and I end up putting in headphones. Sometimes I don't mind it, other times I'd rather have silence.

Cubicle culture is totally different than being in an open space or even sitting directly next to someone but I feel as long as corporations are saving money, it's going to stay this way.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 22, 2013:

Thanks, jeannieinabottle. It probably is all about perspective!

Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on April 22, 2013:

I am unfortunately not even lucky enough to have a cubicle. I have a desk sitting in the middle of a space with zero privacy and no windows. My closest co-worker sits about 5 feet from me and we can play bumper chairs... we literally do sometimes... not always on purpose either! I remember the good old days of having a cubicle before I was laid off. Sigh.

At any rate, this is a great hub. I did not realize it was called "prairie dogging" to peer over a cubicle at co-workers. There is someone at my office that does that all the time. I will share this term with my co-worker (that sits only 5 feet from me). She will get a kick out of it. Voted up!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 18, 2013:

Definitely more enjoyable, viaya1000! Thanks for the read.

vinayak1000 from Minneapolis on April 18, 2013:

Great stuff! My Dad should read this; it is pretty clear that we are moving in a directly where more people will be 'working' on HubPages type sites.

This for sure is more enjoyable than the dreary 9 to 5 job.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 11, 2013:

It's been over 20 years since I escaped the cubicle nation and never looked back! Love "prairie dogging" - never heard it called that before, but that's exactly what it is. Great hub and congrats on your Rising Star Award!

Pierre Esaie Dumene from Dominican Republic on April 11, 2013:

I love my cube because they supply me with a nice laptop and tech support. Yes this is office supplies galore!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 10, 2013:

Thanks for the read and the comments, Writerly Yours. When I switched employers, I went from an office to a cubicle, where I personally experienced many of these things and more -- loud talkers, sudden laughers, people who loved the shredder, prairiedogs, cussers and those who muttered to themselves from the stress, the gassy, oversharers of medical/personal/marital/religious information even though it was a workplace, etc. Your idea of sharing the hub with peers and your direct report as a reminder is a good one. Thanks again!

Writerly Yours on April 10, 2013:

First of all this is very well written and organized.

You outlined your thoughts effectively. Kudos!

As for your topic, you hit it right on the nail! Cubicles, although "cost effective" to workers it sure is not a healthy way to work. I have worked in several different companies and there are healthier cubicles than others but no matter where you are a cubicle is torture to endure.

I will use this hub in my next meeting with My Peers and direct report. My company sends our cubicle etiquette reminders every few months and everything listed on here is exactly what goes on day in and day out at cubicles across the nation.

Thank you for taking the time to hub about this fascinating topic.