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A Surprising Response To Cubicle Misery
Wide-Open Spaces May Improve Productivity

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Melissa Thomas was about to talk to me about life in cube-land. But the cell connection was cut off between the elevator and the sidewalk outside her office in Miami.

You see, she was trying to escape her office, where her co-workers can hear everything she says.

And some things -- such as talking about the angst, disgust and even the pros of working in cube-farms -- are best said without co-workers around.

Do you remember those days when you could slip into your private office, close the door and make that personal phone call? Or escape from maddening co-workers? Or simply have some quiet time to read that academic paper you needed to check out? Right, me neither.

With at least 70 percent of office workers spending their days in cubicles or open offices without any sort of dividers, very few workplaces have doors and, therefore, privacy anymore. Which means many workers have workplace complaints that involve burnt popcorn, speaker phones and lurkers/starers. Because without the walls workers used to have, we all have to share much more personal aspects of our lives than ever before.

Thomas has spent her days as a graphic designer in Miami listening to a co-worker berate her husband, observing co-workers clipping toenails next to her, or getting nauseated as others dig into their baked salmon leftovers. And she really can't stand it when one of her co-workers joins in on a conversation, uninvited, from the other side of the cube wall.

Yes, we all know about cube-land, because most of us live in it. But it seems that this new sort of workplace interaction actually helps some people decide where they want to work.

One woman told me that after having a door for the first time for about a year, she would "definitely turn down a job that required me to sit in a cube." Why? Because when she needs to concentrate, she is easily distracted and can't tune out loud conversations in surrounding cubes. She gets much more work done as an editor when she can shut her door and not "chit-chat with every person who walks by. Yes, it's antisocial, but that's what lunch is for."

Another anti-cubeperson wrote to me blasting today's office environment. "When you can't talk on the phone -- about anything -- without the whole world overhearing; when you are forced to sit literally feet away from someone you dislike, eight hours a day, five days a week with no real way to get away; when someone is staring at your computer screen because it faces the whole world, scrutinizing everything you're doing; when you have a job (like writing or editing) that requires peace and quiet and all you get is the constant noise of people talking, the copier churning, the microwave beeping, doors shutting, and the front desk receptionist answering calls; all of these things create a negative environment."

It's no wonder people get so fired up about their physical workplace. After all, we essentially live in this space, right? And this space, in many cases, is not made to be livable.

"Dilbert"-esque cubicles are the worst of all office environments, said Franklin Becker, director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University.

They appear to offer privacy, but in reality, they are noisy and create the chance for the most interruptions when a co-worker has to poke his head into the space and ask if you are busy.

His research suggests a counterintuitive point, however: Sometimes more open environments are better than the taller cube as far as interaction goes.

"It won't do anything about smells . . . but interruptions: You learn to observe non-verbal behavior. You are able to time when to talk to someone better than poking your head around to ask if they are busy. You can see this person is fully engrossed."

Laurie Pollack, a project manager for an e-mail news service, loves her open office in D.C. Some executives and directors are in offices with actual -- gasp! -- doors, but the rest of the workers are grouped by teams in large, open spaces.

Sure, there are privacy issues (Pollack said in a whisper). But she has learned to cope. After a while, don't we all realize our world is not that interesting to our co-workers? They probably aren't listening, unless you are incredibly loud.

When Pollack first started to work there in April, she would leave the building to take personal calls. Not anymore. Everyone can hear what everyone else is saying, so after a while it just doesn't matter.

And really, she wouldn't trade that hide-nothing environment for any other kind of office.

Pollack and her co-workers "live in fear of a cube." It's so cliche. It's so "The Office," so "Dilbert," grunt work, rat race. It's easy to make fun of tall, drab corkboard walls. And so Pollack and her co-workers make fun. They have set up a cube-farm on a table with cubicle action figures. (Pollack has "Ann," who has a game of solitaire on her little plastic computer. You can create your action figure's title from a sheet of different words. "In the spirit of not sounding important, I picked Assistant Customer Service Trainee," Pollack reports.)

Becker from Cornell said most new offices being built or restructured involve a variety of spaces so people have a place to shut themselves away, while they also have an open space that they share with co-workers. He likened the newest office designs to life at home: No one can stay in his bedroom all day long. Everyone heads into the kitchen or living room at some point. "No individual needs full privacy eight hours a day," he said.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to hide in a conference room for a while. I need to escape the gossip and get some work done.

Join Amy Joyce Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon at washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her with your ideas for a column atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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