By March 10, 2006

A least put a wheel in here.

If you’re reading this, that means you’re my personal friend or someone I’ve met through an online game. That means I know you’ve worked in a cube environment at least once. I’m speaking of the cubicle, the human-in-a-hamster-cage disaster that represents all that’s wrong with corporations these days. Thanks to Dilbert, Office Space, and a hojillion other jokes and satires, cube life has spawned a new vocabulary, etiquette, and even a toy line. Cubes lend the illusion of privacy — an illusion quickly dispelled when you hang up your doctor and a nearby “gopher” up and asks how your HPV treatment is going. We’ve all sat quietly in our cubes while a nearby dweller rants about how so-and-so fucked up their CVS merge and slams their keyboard against their desk. My own personal hell was sitting behind a co-worker who frequently, and repeatedly, unleashed the worst assgas ever brewed by a human being.

In light of all this, I was down for a read when cnn.com ran an article yesterday about office working environments. The article interviewed several of the people involved with the creation and marketing of the “Action Office,” including inventor Bob Propst. Out of all the Action Office’s original ideas, I really wish we had varying desk levels, which would have allowed us to continue working whether we sat down or stood up. This would help a lot with the chronic muscle fatigue symptoms we experience, especially regarding upper and lower back pain associated with long hours sitting down at the keys. One of the things I liked the most about the article was how the folks originally associated with the cube concept now regret how cubes were implemented. My favorite line comes from Joe Schwartz, who served as Herman Miller’s former marketing chief and helped launch cubes in the late 60s: “The Action Office wasn’t conceived to cram a lot of people into little space. It was driven that way by economics.”

Reading the article made me think back to the various work environments I’ve survived. I was a bit surprised to realize that my favorite work environments, the environments that engendered the most collaboration, the most productivity, and oddly enough, the most privacy were open air environments. Whether it was at the ad agency, crammed in a room full of other programmers, or at the Web application development shop in Oregon in a vaulted-ceiling flat, I enjoyed being able to see and interact my other co-workers. Since there was no illusion of “private space” or territory, I wouldn’t be bent out of shape if someone dropped by unannounced for a discussion. One of my friends recently exorcised one of my biggest cubicle pet peeves. She was working away when she felt a presence nearby. Sure enough, it was someone who wanted to chew the fat. I HATED that type of visit. Why? It wasn’t because someone wanted to chit-chat, or talk about work, or whatever. I think it was because I felt like my cube was my territory, and they were an unwelcomed, impromptu annoyance.

An open air environment dispels all that. There is no semblance of immediate territory or privacy. In Oregon, there was a room with a desk and a phone in it. If you had something private to talk about, you went in that room and shut the doors. If you walked near the quiet-time room and the doors were closed, you respected whatever was going on in there. There wasn’t any of this bullshit about listening at the door, or barging in mid-conversation as would happen in a cube environment and a gopher.

Right now I work from home, and there are definite drawbacks. I miss interacting with people, for one thing. A lot of the spontaneous conversation and learning that went on in an office environment just wouldn’t happen here. Thankfully, the job I do now doesn’t require as much face-to-face interaction with people; I guess it’s more of a social interaction deficit that I’m feeling. Regardless, I’d like to think that in my next office job, if there is one, is not in a cube environment.

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1 Comment on "A least put a wheel in here."

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  1. configuratrix says:

    Hmm. Maybe I would like an open air environment for that reason. I’ve actually never worked in one, and thought I’d hate it due to lack of privacy, but maybe I’m clinging to an illusion in my cube.