I work in my cubicle, back to the doorway that has no door, which is a position I hate. Like any good Sicilian, I'm uncomfortable when I'm not facing a room. I much prefer the wall at my back, the unfolding world in front of me. That way I can't be taken by surprise. Like Michael Corleone, I want all the entrances staked out, preferably by me since I know I can trust myself not to betray me. Unlike Michael Corleone, this has nothing to do with large swarthy men with machine guns catching me unprepared and mowing me down with a rapid peppering of painful blasts. Unless you count my boss and his ideas, which, to be honest, I do.
I also wear headphones at work a lot of the time, which adds to my obliviousness. I've probably had a good 5 years taken off my life expectancy due to co-workers popping in while I'm engrossed in writing an email and rocking out to Tears for Fears. The headphones are necessary though; I sit in a cubicle kitty-corner to the woman I like to call Blabby McCan'tShutUp. I know more about Blabby's divorce, her two kids, and what their visiting schedule with their father is than anyone except her lawyer. I've also heard far too much about "Hunky Boyfriend #1" and "Hunky Boyfriend #2". Blabby is nice enough, but looking at her, it's difficult to imagine not one but two hunky guys vying for her attention. That probably sounds mean, and I realize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I also realize that I have no room to talk, but I do believe that we can establish a standard of hunkiness that allows everyone to readily imagine what a "Hunky Boyfriend" would look like, at least in the abstract. Brendan Fraser? A hunk. Vin Diesel? Extreme hunk. David Duchovny? Winner of the Hunkiest Hunk Ever in the History of the Universe award. Blabby's boyfriends? I'm betting against the hunk factor.
These are the things I consider, as I try to work in my cubicle. It's forced upon me by circumstances.
There's a pamphlet next to my laptop, bright red, with the excessively enthusiastic personalized message, "Kristin Pinnatore You're Moving!" Indeed. The whole division is moving one freeway stop away. They've already removed the only vending machine in the building so I know they're serious. We all knew that the good times were over about two years ago when they started charging a quarter for a soda and reduced the number of vending machines in the building from three (one on each floor) to one. Now there's no place to get a bag of Doritos at 2 in the afternoon, and I'm not convinced we're going to see our friend Mr. Vendy at the new place.
Is the company for which I've worked these last five and a half years dying? Probably. But I shouldn't think too much about it, says higher management, since we're moving to new digs, and said new digs are going to do wonders for our morale. Because the new digs have offices for everyone.
It's been over 6 years since I worked at a company where everyone had an office. It's not common in the Silicon Valley. I have over 10 years under my belt in the Valley - seven different companies, not counting mergers - and at only two of them has the workspace had offices for all. Oddly enough, both of those companies used the same building in Mountain View, though several years apart. I suspect it's the only office building in Mountain View with actual offices for everybody.
I've slaved for a couple of companies where the workspace was mixed - offices for the managers, cubicles for the plebes. A constant reminder of your place in the system. I suspect that's not so unusual an arrangement in other businesses, it's just that I don't have enough experience in other industries to comment. In high school and college I worked a series of mostly restaurant and retail jobs. About 6 months before I graduated college, I landed a full time contracting gig in software testing, and I haven't done anything substantially different since. The office spaces always look pretty much the same in the software industry. Eight by eight foot cubicles with a white board on one wall and the computers arranged so that you always have to work with your back to the entrance.
The biggest problem with an all-cubicle environment is the lack of privacy. You can't have a conversation that everybody else around you can't overhear. It puts pressure on the conference rooms. Everybody needs to book a conference room for every little thing instead of simply closing the door. Ludicrously enough, this fact means that each time we've had layoffs (and we've had three rounds in the last year), everybody knew on which day they were going to happen because every conference room in the building was booked all day.
The all-cubicle all-the-time set up is supposed to promote a sense of equality. The notion is that if you're a worker bee and you have a cubicle, and your boss is the boss but she also has a cubicle, and her director is a level above her but he has a cubicle too, then titles and levels and all that make very little difference because none of you can hear yourselves think no matter how much you're being paid.
In reality it doesn't actually work out that way at all, because despite the "we're all in this together" sentiment behind the arrangement, cubicles are highly configurable. This means that a lowly contractor or intern might be put into something known as a "bullpen", which is a shared cubicle maybe three or four times as big as a regular cubicle but containing 5 or 6 workers at a time. Zero privacy. Meanwhile, a regular employee might get the eight by eight treatment, which isn't exactly secluded, but at least you don't have a half dozen other people looking over your shoulder all the time. But the boss gets a rectangular set-up, twice as long as it is wide and usually by a window. And director level on up might get cubicles even larger, including tables, chairs, and the occasional refrigerator.
OK, OK, I'm kidding about the fridge, but I'm deadly serious about the rest of it. The notion of a sense of equality gets thrown right out the window in the real world, since in any hierarchical system there needs to be a way to quickly and confidently identify the power structure. The fastest way to do that is by office space - the higher up you are, the bigger and better your space.
A common theme in the Silicon Valley is the "even the CEO has a cubicle" idea. What they fail to mention is that the CEO also has a private conference room steps away from that huge reconfigured cube space, and nobody else gets to go in there. At any time, the CEO can pop away to make calls, have personal chats, or play Tetris undetected. And I'm not complaining about that. A CEO needs to have a modicum of privacy. He or she engages in a lot of activity that absolutely requires solitude - wheeling and dealing, talking to potential investors, cooking the books, whatever - and these things need to happen behind closed doors.
What I take issue with is the lip service given to equality in an environment that absolutely cannot - and arguably should not - support it. We're not all equal at the company and our needs aren't the same. The CEO could not survive in a bullpen, and neither, I might add, could the company survive if it put her there. In striving for an environment that promotes equality for all - or at least seems to on the surface - many companies wind up creating situations wherein everyone is uncomfortable. Where closed doors mean secrets, and gossip is a way of life. Where headphones are a requirement because nobody cares about your boyfriends.
So I'm curious to see the new offices. I've heard that they're not much bigger than our current cubes, which, if true, will mean feeling like I'm working in a closet since at least cube walls are only 6 feet tall and thus give a feeling of airiness. I know that each office has a sliding glass door without shades or curtains, and that these doors have no locks, due to regulations. I suspect that the feeling of isolation may be higher for a while, but that overall the environment will be quieter in the long run.
As a precaution, I've confirmed that Blabby will be on a separate floor. With my luck, it'll be the floor with the vending machine.
- KNP Aug 17, '02