Office Cubicle Survival: Courtesy, Productivity, and Stress
Welcome To the Cubicle Habitat
If you've ever been crammed into a 6'x6' 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!
Walls That Separate
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 work space allocation for employees in North American companies will be under 100 square feet.1 Sound small? That's down from 500-700 square feet of average work space in the 1970s, when the cubicle came of age.2
A Good Idea Gone Awry
Corporate America soon realized, however, that Propst's Action Office could be used to maximize 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.
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.
Hey, You Prairie Dogger!
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.
Constantly Being Watched
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 and
- 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 and
- 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's Hard To Hear Yourself Think In A Cubicle
Shut Up and Let Me Think
Brief back 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 to 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, and
- increases in blood pressure.12,13
One experiment found that workers were less motivated to make ergonomic adjustments to their work station 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.
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.
Smells, Glorious Smells ...
Smells: The Nose Knows
- Don't eat smelly foods at your desk. What is delicious to you is disgusting to someone else.15 For example: onions, fish, pickles, and anything served warm.
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.
Got My Eye On You
Reader Poll: Your Worst Tendency
Okay, be honest. Which is YOUR worst tendency in the cubicle environment?
Kiss Privacy Goodbye
- 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. He or she telescopes 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.")
There's One In Every Office
Sights: I Spy
- Personalize your work space 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 your 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.
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, 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 the Best of It You Can
My Cubicle - James Blunt Parody
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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