Cubicles are one of the stranger phenomena of the modern office world. In case you are not familiar with an office environment, let me explain. Cubicles are tiny fenced spaces, normally about 8X8 feet wide, surrounded by walls about 5 feet high with an opening for a door. These are designed to be ergonomically efficient and give modern day office workers a private space in which to work.
In the olden days, we did not have such luxuries. We had rows of end-to-end desks in a large room. Everyone could see every one else and if we needed something, we probably just yelled across the room instead of calling on the phone or sending an email. We could just look up to see if the other person seemed busy and wait until they were not.
Folks were chummy in the elbow-to-elbow environment. We knew our fellow workers far better than we ever cared to. Now we are protected from all of that. We have our own tiny space of real estate, a cubical of our own to call home – the ultimate workplace status symbol, a private office. Of course, it is only private for five feet from the floor and one side is half missing to make a doorway into our tiny piece of purgatory.
I’ve had cubicles of all different ergonomically correct colors. Presently I have a pink cube. Okay, it is called “mauve” in the office furniture catalogs, very chic with black files. I used to have blue and gray. That was rather nice, but mauve is the trendy new color. I even had a gold and tan hue for a while. That was rather tacky and I was glad when we abandoned that particular place for our new digs.
Bosses, of course, have maintained their private offices with doors – real doors that close to hide their private telephone conversations, urgent email, high-priority correspondence and whatever it is that bosses do. Mere mortal workers continue to labor in semi-private, behind semi-walls, semi-isolated from the semi-intelligent people they work with.
Well, after a while, I’ve begun to wonder, “What’s the point?” Sure, it was nice at first to have my own place, my own little chunk of real estate in the bureaucracy. That feeling faded rapidly. Conversation with co-workers ceased. Communication depended on the telephone or the computer.
The cubical walls do not stop the noise from other cubicles, only the face-to-face interactions. We live in isolation from each other, hearing each other’s noise: keyboards clicking, music from radios, and telephone conversations. We smell each other’s coffee and micro-waved lunches, but are not interacting.
“People who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” Barbara Streisand used to sing. I tend to agree. We have been drawn deeper and deeper into our computers and further and further from each other. People are hard to know behind their textured fences. Like rats in a maze, we wander through the days.
Do we want to go backwards to the days of end-to-end desks in the large warehouse style room? Probably not. The lure of a space of our own is just too tempting. We can have an illusion of privacy whether we have actual privacy or not. We can engage in a private phone conversation, not realizing, or at least not admitting that the person on the other side of the cubicle wall hears it all.
Cubicles take considerably more floor space than desks. Why is it that we need privacy exactly? To conceal the fact that we are not always working at being productive, something that was really pretty obvious in the larger open office environment? Or so that we can work more effectively without distractions like having to see George across the room picking his nose, Susan flirting, or Richard flossing his teeth?
I can only muse and wonder at the inefficiency of so much efficiency. I marvel at the descriptive correctness of the word “bureaucracy” as it applies to square cubicles in a round world.