• May 2011

Can Office Cubicles Have Soul?

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

You probably remember this Dilbert cartoon. Back on March 24, 2004, the infamous strip featured Dilbert’s boss speaking to a classroom of kids on Career Day, telling them, “When you grow up, you’ll be put in a container called a cubicle. The bleak oppressiveness will warp your spine and destroy your capacity to feel joy.”

Extreme? Maybe not. While cubicles are a highly efficient use of space, working in one of these windowless boxes can present significant challenges for the employee, the manager, and the HR team. Here’s why.

The Drama of Working in Cubicles

With a majority of full-time and part-time employees working in cubicles, the International Facility Management Association states that 50 percent of workers say their bathroom at home is larger than their cubicle at work. Additionally, 23 percent say their closet and kitchen pantry are bigger. Add on top of that the mounds of paperwork, and workers have one depressing day at work.

While many HR professionals had hoped that the trend of cubicles would be short-lived, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) reports that space constraints dictating cubicle use will not disappear anytime in the near future.

The good news is that designers are looking for ways to eliminate the elements that make cubicles so unpopular — including cubes with ceilings and doors, and separate light and climate controls.

In fact, ASID’s designers have come up with solutions to help companies make good use of cubicles as a way to increase productivity, decrease the number of meetings, and therefore save costs using the cubicle-inspired collaborative environment to facilitate teamwork.

While ASID acknowledges that some people need uninterrupted time and space to be productive — something that can be tough to find in a cubicle — others actually thrive working in cubicles. The reason? Being able to engage a colleague in a nearby cube in a discussion to help them quickly solve a problem energizes them.

I’m not buying it.

While I love the suggestion that well-designed cubicles can increase productivity for some companies and some employees, I have a feeling those organizations (and those people) are few and far between.

Most of what I see as an HR professional is conflicts arising from people working too close together. I’ve seen people on the verge of a breakdown — not just because of the lack of privacy, but because day in and day out they have no control over their physical environment. They can’t even control the temperature in their workspace.

In fact, I have had to mediate between employees regarding the use of speakerphones, music choices, odors from employees eating in their cubicle, inappropriate pictures on cubicle walls, personal phone calls, and annoying personal habits.

There are also generational issues around cubicles. As a group, Baby Boomers tend to prefer quiet spaces, and place great importance on having an office that demonstrates their status in the organization.

Younger employees, on the whole, seem to enjoy the freedom a cubicle provides. They tell me that they like being able to easily move between spaces and work more collaboratively.

Creative Solutions

In an effort to balance functional requirements, such as square footage and budget, with employee styles and preferences, many organizations have gotten creative.

Some companies have created clustered cubicles, where employees can have privacy to do their work — but have the flexibility for quick collaboration by rolling their chairs around to others in the cluster.

Cubicle Etiquette

According to image consultant Jill Bremer of Bremer Communications, some simple rules can make life better for cubicle workers:

  • Never enter someone’s cubicle without permission — in other words, treat cubicles as if they have doors
  • Use your “indoor” voice and don’t use your speakerphone
  • Use a private space (conference room) for confidential meetings or phone calls
  • Try to answer phone calls quickly and set the ringer tone to a low volume
  • Take personal calls outside or move to a conference room
  • Don’t congregate outside someone’s cubicle with others — move to a conference room
  • Eat quietly and dispose of your trash away from your work area. Avoid gum popping, knuckle cracking, humming, slurping, and pen tapping
  • Go lightly on the perfume or cologne, and eliminate it altogether if someone close by is allergic
  • Keep the volume way down or use headphones
  • Keep your workspace neat and clean
  • Remember, you work with others who may have different ideas of what is appropriate at work, and honor those differences by being considerate

The Soul of the Matter

It appears that cubicles are here to stay.

While they may never have the soul of a funky old building or the glitz and status of a posh corner office, I do believe workers, managers, and HR leaders can peacefully work in our boxed-in environments if we are aware and considerate of the needs of our co-workers.

Maybe, just maybe, we can all learn to make the best of the situation.


About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known as an expert in recruitment and retention. She has experience in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and has consulted to a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Mitchell is a graduate of North Park University in Chicago, with a degree in History and Political Science. Contact Mitchell by email.

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