Viewpoint -- Home Sweet Cubicle

Dec. 21, 2004
The transition from office to cubicle isn't easy.

I am a cubicle dweller. Don't get me wrong; I do not choose to be a cubicle dweller. The decision was made for me -- as it has been for countless other former office dwellers in recent years -- when my employer moved us into a new building. I am not complaining. Given the number of former office dwellers who are now employment-agency waiting-room dwellers, I am grateful to be on the receiving end of a regular paycheck. I'd much rather have it delivered to my cubicle than not delivered at all. I even understand that my status with the company is unchanged. As time goes on, an office with a window is becoming less and less an indication of rank. A few weeks ago I visited an enormously successful high-tech company where the founders and other executives sat in cubicle space considerably more modest and less private than my own. They seemed to revel in being part of the team, literally as well as figuratively. Just one of the crowd. Who can argue with that? Well, I can. My beef isn't with the space itself. Not only do cubicles make sense from the standpoint of economics, but also from the standpoint of the environment (better air flow) and efficiency (better communication flow). My beef is purely aesthetic. Must they all look precisely alike? I've dwelled in the cubicle world for close to a year now, and I still get lost when I am looking for a colleague. Every row looks the same. Yes, our names are press-typed in small letters on the little walls next to our "doors" -- actually, openings in our partitions-- but when it comes to small type, the 20/20 rule applies. That is, only 20-year-olds can read it from 20 paces. Some of the veterans here -- which is to say, those of us who until a few years ago thought of cubicles as those home-made treats our mothers used to make for us by putting Kool-Aid in the ice-cube tray -- have suggested we make "street signs" for every cubicle row. My row, incidentally, is occupied by guys like me -- guys of a vintage when the aforementioned Kool-Aid treats might have been stored in the "ice box," or at least in the Frigidaire our parents still referred to as such. "Gray Gulch" might be a good moniker for our street. Possibilities for our colleagues, roughly grouped according to their specialties: "Web Way," "Marketing Mile," and "Edit Alley." In the meantime, we have found other ways to personalize our spaces -- some of them, admittedly, in violation of the spirit of cubicle democracy. One of my neighbors, for example, hauled his beat-up, stuffing-overflowing, garage-sale-ugly red chair over to our new quarters. This despite the fact that all of us were provided identical -- not to mention ergonomically correct and expensive -- black chairs to grace our new spaces. The design police confiscated Big Red one night after hours, but its owner found it in the trash and dragged it back. The cops gave up; some scofflaws, they apparently figured, just aren't worth reforming. They figured right. I'm a scofflaw too, and even as I am typing this I am writing my own Declaration of Independence. My computer keyboard is up on my desk, where it definitely does not belong. I actually started breaking the rules before our move. I violated convention when we first were delivered new computers with keyboards locked into what I found to be a most uncomfortable position. When I tried to adjust it according to my own preference, I think I not only broke convention but also the ergonomics guy's heart. By the way, you know what ergonomics is (or is it are?), don't you? I looked it up, and was pleasantly surprised to find the word in my ancient Webster's. And here I had thought it was invented by a 20-something just a few years ago when it suddenly became all the rage. er-go-nom-ics. noun. The study of the problems of people in adjusting to their environment; especially the science that seeks to adapt work or working conditions to suit the worker. Sounds reasonable enough. But somewhere between the time my tattered old Webster's was published and the day it found itself on my new ergonomically correct cubicle shelf, the definition changed. Today, it seems, it is the worker who is expected to adapt to the environment -- that is, an environment fashioned according to someone else's ideas about what is best for him or her. I was struggling to readjust the pull-out shelf created for my new keyboard when the ergonomics guy happened to walk by. "May I help you with something?" he asked. "Yeah," I said. "This thing is angled down." "Yes," he smiled, clearly pleased with the uncanny clarity of my observation. "Well," I said, "I don't want it to be angled down. I want it to be angled up." "Oh, no," the ergonomics guy said. "You don't want that. It should be angled down. That way you can rest your wrists on the pad there and it will be better for you." I restrained myself from telling him that the next item on my agenda was to rip out the annoying pad he was referring to. Damn thing just got in the way. But I did tell him that if I couldn't readjust the pull-out drawer, I'd just put the keyboard right on my desk so it would be angled up the way nature had intended it to be. That's when I think I broke the man's heart. "I urge you to give it a chance," he pleaded. "I'm in the business of changing habits, and I'm sure you'll be happier if you change yours." I informed him that, after more than three decades of typing, I was unlikely to change. But I also nodded politely and pretended to be concerned when he told me that my old habits could cause "potential problems later." It sounded ominous, but he didn't elaborate and I'm not going to worry. I am reasonably certain that any damage I have caused to my well-being by typing on keys set at an upward angle for the past generation are problems I will survive. Besides, there are far more important things to worry about. Like, how do I get this chair to angle back so I can slouch? My buddy looks awfully comfortable over there as he sits back in Big Red. Maybe I'll go garbage picking. There's always something neat lying around at the corner of Edit Alley and Web Way. Or is that Marketing Mile? Richard Osborne is IW's editor-at-large. He is based in Cleveland.

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