Creating Harmony in Cubeville
By Reina G. Wiatt CMA, CPA
© 2005 All Rights Reserved
It’s 8AM and I am greeted by an unusual cast of characters. Weeping Winnie is sobbing over her latest emotional trauma; Kevin Kleptomaniac has taken my favorite pen again; Larry Loud is using the speakerphone to talk to his European counterparts at ear-shattering decibels; and last but not least, Ted Techie set his cell phone ring to ‘Do the Hokey-Pokey.’
Is this a new Reality TV show about dysfunctional roommates or a new Dilbert cartoon? Not at all. It’s the modern office landscape commonly referred to as ‘Cubicle Culture.’ This work environment has spawned a new genre of humorous commentary, new words such as “Cubeville” and “Cubetiquette”, and a plethora of seminars detailing ‘cubicle courtesy’ rules for cubicle office environments.
The open office environment is not a new concept. In the late 19th century, the “office landscape” concept was introduced to increase efficiency and mimic the factory floor. Offices were often large rooms consisting of several rows of end-to-end desks, without partitions, where workers could easily be watched. Standardization of job duties made it easy for managers to keep a close eye on all workers and monitor productivity.
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Today’s workplace design is no longer dictated by the product or service produced. Rather, it is driven by increased competition, cutting costs, rapid technological advances, and shifts in working styles. Jobs were made less monotonous, routines became less rigid, and the look of the office began to change to outwardly show this functional change. As a result, modern corporate management is learning to create a business culture in which teamwork and communication are becoming much more important to worker productivity.
The office cubicle was the solution to this functional change. It consists of a partitioned space for several workers in what is otherwise an open space. For many companies, it has replaced the traditional individual office room or the large, unpartitioned space shared by many workers.
The cubicle is intended to be a compromise that allows a certain amount of privacy, sound-proofing, and lack of distraction for the individual while at the same time encouraging teamwork and sharing of ideas in a collective environment. The separation of managers and workers is also declining: More companies are abandoning private offices for executives in favor of them joining their subordinates in cubicles to foster increased equality and teamwork.
An estimated 60 percent of Americans work in cubicles today. In a typical cubicle office landscape, there are several arrays of interconnected shared walls with little privacy.
Common challenges to maintaining productivity in this type of environment are noise, odors, privacy and cleanliness. The first step to creating a harmonious cubicle environment is to be polite and respect your colleagues’ privacy. Then follow these simple rules for proper “Cubetiquette” and encourage your neighbors to do the same.
The cubicle walls do not stop the noise from other cubicles, only the face-to-face interactions. When co-workers sit closely together, it’s hard to avoid overhearing conversations. Use the same tone of voice as though you were in a library so that your conversations aren’t distracting other people. If you do overhear other conversations, never repeat what you heard. Avoid conversations about personal subjects in public areas and always use a conference room for phone conversations requiring a speaker phone.
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Voices aren’t the only noise pollution in an office environment. It seems that some employees make “little sounds” that they aren’t aware of: Humming, pen-tapping, slurping, gum-popping and-most offensive of all-belching. Rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t do it in a fine restaurant or as a guest in someone’s home, don’t do it in a cubicle.
Electronic devices can now be programmed to play different sounds and music. You may enjoy Tchaikovsky, Celine Dion or Elvis, but your colleagues may not. Cell phones, pagers and beepers should be turned off or switched to vibration mode while working in cubicles.
The Nose Knows
After noise pollution, odors rank as a common complaint for cubicle dwellers. A major office faux pas is wearing too much perfume or aftershave. Overpowering scents may give those nearby headaches or aggravate perfume allergies. Apply fragrances sparingly, and if a co-worker does suffer from allergies, stick to a powder-based scent.
Food odors are a big complaint among cubicle dwellers. A 2003 study found that 67% of workers eat lunch at their desks, while 61% snack there throughout the day. As a result, food odors tend to linger in the air. That limburger cheese sandwich may smell delicious to you, but it could be turning the stomach of your co-worker. If you must eat pungent food, take it to the lunchroom. Also, since food does not have an eternal shelf life, avoid letting it fossilize in your cubicle. Monday’s pizza will not last until Thursday perched on a bookcase. Ensure all leftover food and dirty utensils are removed from cubicles each day. Food-related trash should be emptied in a specific receptacle that is emptied every day to minimize odors and prevent insect infestation.
You can’t avoid them: The colleagues who lean over your cubicle wall or linger endlessly in the entryway chatting non-stop. Their conversations range from sporting events to the latest office gossip.
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Office dwellers have the advantage in that they can shut their doors and avoid unwanted distractions. Treat a cubicle as though it were an office with walls. If you’re approaching someone else’s cubicle, knock gently on the side when trying to get their attention. This gives a co-worker an opportunity to put up a hand or signal that they don’t wish to be disturbed. The cubicle is someone’s work area and should be treated as such.
Just as annoying are the prairie dog imitators. Prairie dogs are cute, furry little animals that pop out of their holes at the slightest noise or distraction and engage in animated chatter with each other. This is fine for the prairie, but is a huge distraction in an office. Employees need not mimic them by constantly popping their heads above cubicle partitions to intrude into other people’s conversations and movements.
With the lack of privacy in cubicles, a little extra courtesy goes a long way to promoting a more pleasant atmosphere among cubicle neighbors.
The office refrigerator and microwave should not contain more life than the employees.
When visitors and customers enter an office area, they instantly judge what kind of company you are by how clean the office looks and smells. Overflowing trashcans, the odor of leftover food and a dirty kitchen not only have a negative impact on employees; they may affect customer perceptions of product quality.
The office refrigerator is meant to be used as place to store employee meals one day at a time. Everything from fuzzy and fermented foods, aged lunches and gym socks has been reportedly found in office refrigerators. If the microwave oven stills smells of food prepared a week ago, it’s long overdue for a thorough cleaning.
Many companies find it helpful to have an office kitchen policy. The general rule to follow is, “When in doubt, throw it out!” You can’t always see or smell bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. Microwaves and refrigerators should be cleaned regularly and any spills should be cleaned up immediately. All dishes and utensils should be washed and put away each day. Countertops and floors should be thoroughly cleaned every day.
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Remember to apply the golden rule in the breakroom by cleaning up after yourself. If you expect a clean area to prepare and store your lunch, don’t leave a mess for someone else.
Companies can assist in maximizing the benefits of a shared, open environment while minimizing distractions that hurt productivity. Adding small conference (“minute”) rooms away from the cubicle areas allow employees to make conference calls, have short meetings and work without interruption. Creating a floor plan that allows more space between and around cubicles provides additional privacy and lessens distractions. Policies that facilitate respect for individual needs and promote cleanliness in common areas create positive workplace attitudes.
Professionalism and courtesy are the keys to being a good cubicle neighbor, so take time to know your neighbors and their individual preferences. The easiest way to create a comfortable cubicle environment is to communicate with your colleagues and demonstrate mutual respect. The result will be a happier office, reduced distractions and enhanced productivity.