Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cubicle Tidbits

As a recent graduate of college, I am beginning to realize a number of things. First, that while everyone hopes to use college as a springboard into the “real-world,” very few people have any idea what that world actually looks like. Beyond that, even fewer make that transition smoothly. My second realization was this: I have no idea what I am doing. Let me elaborate…

Prior to my foray into the “real” world, my general expertise ranged from overly cheesy movie lines, to an almost creepy detail-oriented nature (the kind that has me staring at you, wondering if you got a haircut), and even to textbook business (it had better be a knowledge set, seeing as I gave up four years of my life and a bunch of green paper for it).

I was, one might say, blessed. I picked a good major at (relatively) good school. I got good grades, did some good interviews, and OH LOOKIE HERE, got what I determined to be a “good job.”

You see, as I couldn’t go about my daily life spouting movie lines at people for a living, I chose to work in a business that puts my name on a business card, has me email a bunch of people every day, and lets me sit in project meetings (Yes, I am being deliberately vague about what it is that I do. C’mon people, I’m trying to be relatable here).


While I was preparing to start my big-kid job, I found an article that described the “open office environment.” This article explained the way offices were trying to encourage interaction in the office by creating fluid working environments. If you found the urge to mumble, “BS,” under your breath, we are on the same page. What does this author really mean? I don’t think I’m wrong here, working in this kind of “open office environment” means I have a desk, but no door and …. Oh wait, that’s a cubicle.

And honestly, my four years of classes, projects, and even interviews would not prepare me for moving in to the actual business world… and in to my own cubical. And I use, “my own,” rather liberally; I do not really own the space. I share the space.

Just Googling the words “cubicle life” brings a host of blogs, and websites, and advice columns on the wonders and benefits of “open office environments.” Take this blog for instance, “10 Reasons Why I Love my Cubicle (http://www.lifeaftercollege.org/blog/2010/01/10/i-love-my-cubicle/). This woman spouts the virtues of collaboration, the 401k and healthcare benefits and… OH MY GOODNESS... FREE OFFICE SUPPLIES. (Well, don’t we all love post-its?)

Let’s be real, folks. This woman took her happy pills before writing that post. I have been at my job for… let’s just say, not very long… and I have already made my own list:


1. There is a reason your boss doesn’t have one.

If these environments are so conducive to good work and have so many benefits, why does getting a promotion mean a one-way ticket out of this short walled, shanty town? (I kid, I kid.) But the answer might lie in the fact that privacy is a valued commodity. Shutting out the rest of the world for a moment allows you to set your own priorities and answer things on your own time. Even more importantly, an office comes with a door. The physical motion of closing that barrier to the rest of your office sends a message and instantaneously establishes hierarchy.

2. Privacy? Well you never really minded sharing your life with your coworkers… did you?

I never really thought about how people run their lives while they work all day, until I was forced to manage my own. Moving to start my job meant finding a new dentist, doctor, auto mechanic, etc. And, lo and behold, these businesses don’t operate on special, “but this is when I get off work!” hours. When I had to make my first doctor’s appointment, I had to make the call at work. I had to say why I was visiting; I had give them my information… all while my coworkers sat a few feet away. Now, you can always take advantage of your lunch hour and make calls from your car (I have done this as well), but it is worth noting that ‘privacy’ is a loose term in a cubicle.

3. Even though you are right next to someone, people still expect you to email them a question.

This tidbit comes from the awkward moment I had in the first few weeks of my job. My coworker and I were collaborating on a project and I had a large number of questions (cut me some slack, I was new). It seemed rather convenient to me at the time that her cubicle was adjacent to mine. I could swivel my nifty office chair around and ask her for clarification. However, I soon noticed that when other people in the office would ask a question, they would open with, “Sorry to bother you,” or “Do you have a second?” or even, “Is this a good time?” At that moment I realized that constantly throwing questions over the cubicle wall to my coworker could have been disturbing her… no matter how simple the question was. It became my practice to write down a number of questions in an email and shoot it through cyberspace rather than asking her throughout the day. However, if she stopped by my desk at all, I could then whip out my question list and ask in person.

4. There might be that coworker that draws an imaginary line of “barrier of personal space.” Do not cross that line without permission. Do not come close to that line when they are not around. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Imagine a cubicle: four walls, an open doorway, computer, blah blah blah. Now, put in a sliding glass door in that open space. That is how some coworkers treat their cubicle. Regardless of if you have clarified if they, “have a sec,” some will still require you to ask permission to cross in to their personal space. I was slightly taken aback when I first encountered this, until I noticed that a community table intersects with my cubicle space. People come and go as they please, using the table to staple papers, mix their coffee, etc. It actually would be nice to have someone ask to walk in to my space every once in a while. This, “ask before you enter” rule particularly applies when the person is NOT there. Dropping things off on a desk? Might be okay. Looking for a particular file in a drawer? You had better be sure to get permission.

5. You. Can. Hear. Everything… which also means, so can everyone else.

That person yawned over there. Was that the chair squeaking across the floor or did Mary just pass gas?! I think so-and-so is sick; they have been coughing and sneezing all day. Whatever the sound, no matter how minor, it always seems to carry in a small space.

6. There will always be that one co-worker that claims ownership of public spaces (like cabinets or fridges) because they don’t have enough room at their desk… Wait a second, neither do you.

Cubicles are meant to help you be productive while maximizing the use of space. I only have three drawers and a shelf to help me organize everything on my desk. It is a challenge, but you do what you can with desk organizers and file racks (I now understand how Staples and OfficeDepot make so much money). But there are little known tricks of the trade. There are extra cabinets throughout the office that people use to store food, cutlery, and other goodies (Under the printer? Next to the fridge? In Peggy’s old desk?). These spaces seem like they are captured on a first-come, first-serve basis and often seniority counts, (“Janet always keeps her cereal there. Has for years.”). It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a black market for additional storage space.

7. Sometimes, it’s really cold at my desk. Sometimes it’s really hot. Bring a sweater.

Because you share your office space with … oh, the entire office, you also share the thermostat. My personal theory is that there is a thermostat gnome that constantly changes the temperature on a whim. It might be hot outside, but freezing at my desk. Or, it could be snowing outside, and I have a fierce sweat going all day. It only took me one week to identify which conference rooms always required sweaters and which rooms had no A/C at all. The best way to beat the thermo-gnome? I leave a sweater at the office. Mama always said, better have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

8. Someone smells. All. Day. Long.

This was a sad realization. Other people’s body odor and personal hygiene were not generally something I spent too much time worrying over. Until I noticed that my cubicle neighbor has a rather… interesting aroma surrounding him. This was not a, “once in a blue moon” smell either. Because I share my working space with my coworkers, I am going to be exposed to much more than the sound of their typing. This takes (and is still taking) some getting used to. But then again, they are stuck smelling what I make for lunch, right? Bring on them hard boiled eggs! (Seriously though, you have to eat hard boiled eggs in the cafeteria and not at your desk, this was apparently an actual ‘issue.’ Ah the joys of Corporate America. I love you HR!)

9. Did you want to listen to music at your desk? Have you not seen Office Space? REASONABLE VOLUME, SIR.

Some people work better with music. Sometimes a little Glee soundtrack gets my groove going and I can focus on my projects. However, most offices don’t allow headphones (depends on where you work), so listening to your Justin Bieber on the job will have to be very quiet or not at all.

10. And sadly, there is generally that person who doesn’t know the definition of reasonable volume (yes, neighbor, I hear your country slow jams).

Whether it is a radio or an iPod, there might be that one person who thinks they are the only one who can hear their music… even though they are not. For me, it was interesting experiencing this because no one else in the office seemed to mind. Am I the only one that can hear this? Do they all really like country music?? More research will be conducted in this area. Stay tuned for an update.

11. “Oh I called that vendor….” “Oh I spoke to so-and-so…” had better be true, because your coworkers know if you didn’t actually call someone.

Remember that whole “sound travels” thing? BS travels even faster.

12. You always feel this urge…. To…. Look… over … your shoulder. Even if you are doing nothing wrong and are being completely productive and resisting the urge to Facebook or Google images of Pugs.

Because you have no door, there is always the element of suspense. Is someone is going to walk by? Your coworker may just be heading to the printer, your boss may be heading to the bathroom… whatever the reason, you will slowly become accustomed to the soft pad of dress loafers (or in the case of my boss on Fridays, black Vans sneakers) as they approach your area. ABORT ABORT. CLOSE PUG PICTURE WINDOW. (Gosh, but aren’t they just adorable!)

Honestly, my brief experience in the business world has taught me that the business world is indeed a very weird place. I have no idea what I am doing and I am (most likely) stepping on many toes as I try to figure everything out. However, even as ridiculous as cubicle life can be sometimes, it is rather nice to be surrounded by people going through exactly what I am going through, and able to help me if I ask for it.

I might not have a clue what I’m doing in this “real world,” but I think I am on the way to figuring it out…. One tidbit at a time.

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