Cubiclephobia: Death of the cubicle

Is a job about producing value or about being seen in your cube when your manager walks by? Is a job about creating, innovating, and leading, or being tethered to a grey cubicle? How do you think outside the box, if the box you are assigned to stifles all creativity and innovation?

In the late 1960s, Robert Probst conducted studies to learn about the ways people work in an office, how information travels, and how the office layout affects performance. From his research, he created the Action Office, for the most part, not a far cry from the cubicle working environments we know today. Probst found that the work areas he examined, large open rooms with rows and rows of desks with no sound  barriers and no privacy, were interfering with efficiency and productivity.  In an era where we can be connected anywhere, are the cubicle environments created by Probst interfering with efficiency and productivity today?

Cubicle life

I have had the opportunity to work on a really fascinating and cool project this summer at a company I really admire. No where in my contract did it say I had to come in to the office everyday, sit in a dismal cube with a giant 4′x4′ support pole in the middle of it, and struggle to be focused in a foreign environment full of chatter and weird food smells.  I assumed the culture of this organization expected me to do so, and thus struggled to fit my work style into the one I assume is theirs. I just don’t work well in that type of environment, as it causes me more frustration and stress than enabling creativity and productivity. I know I am not alone…

Working From Home

My husband has been working from home for years for Dell. When we are actually living in the city of his employer, he goes in once every couple of weeks to meet someone who happens to be in town, or for a special meeting. But normally, he wakes up, rolls out of bed, and is off to work almost immediately. (I understand that Dell moved to their model to save on energy and building costs.) As a doctoral student and consultant, my schedule is much the same, but I am not tethered to certain work hours – which I love! If I am most productive between 10-2 and 7-11, what would stop me making that my schedule? Or do I even need a schedule? When I work from home there is no traffic on the way to my computer to waste my time and cause me stress, I have more time in my day because I am not having to spend extra hours ironing and doing my hair and face, and most importantly I get more rest. With extra rest, extra time, and less stress… I live a happier and healthier life, which in turn makes me more creative and productive.

Alter the Status Quo?

As I think about my job as a (future) educator of future engineers, and (future) adviser to graduate students, I wonder how I will run my ship, per se.  How can I create an environment that is conducive to the efficiency and productivity of 21st century learners and innovators? How can I foster a community without tethering students to the status quo, but preparing them for reality?

Do you think more companies will move to more efficient models where employees work from home offices at least a few days a week, coming in for a day full of meetings? How do you think this affects collaboration and associated innovation? How does this affect employee productivity? Will the 8 to 5 remain the status quo? Does the 8 to 5 status quo even exist in engineering? (I know when I practiced as an engineer, I would be on the phone with Malaysia til 11 pm in the evenings, and the expectation was that I was still at work at 8:00 AM.) Will the retirement of baby boomers and the increase of Gen Y’ers lead the paradigm shift?

Death of the cubicle

“So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s the worst day of my life.”  Peter Gibbons, Initech Corp. (Office Space)

One of my jobs is talking to educators, counselors, and students about how cool engineering is as a future career. So often “the cubicle” is brought up as an undesirable life option. This is what I call cubiclephobia: fear of a life working in a cubicle. I had it as a teen, and I still have it today. Anyway, I usually counter this inquiry with: “Well, you’ll spend time in the lab, fab, conference rooms, and maybe travel, too.” But the reality is, the cubes still exist and are not something young people  (or most people) look forward to. Cubiclephobia is likely to become an increasingly more serious and wide-spread condition. Perhaps the cube will always exist in some form, but can we challenge the status quo, please? Let’s learn to foster cultures that really take advantage of global connectivity and allow people to work from home. Meetings have to happen, so let’s schedule those important face-to-face meetings one day of the week, and leverage phone/video conferencing technologies for every other day. This is the 21st century, and this change needs to occur to continue attracting students to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields that are the most well known cubicle culprits.

“We don’t have a lot of time on this earth. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles all day staring at computer screens.” Peter Gibbons, Initech Corp. (Office Space)

Squidoo, Thanks for reminding me of these great Office Space quotes.

Readers CHIME in

What do you think about 21st century learners and innovators, and the battle to attract them to the cube?

Trackbacks & Pings

Leave a Reply