Coping With Cubicles

President,  Berman Larson Kane
President, Berman Larson Kane

For many otherwise happy workers, the cubicle can be one of the most annoying aspects of the modern work life. Although cubicles give the illusion of privacy, anyone who has worked in one knows that those small walls are easily penetrated by neighbors’ incessant sounds and conversations. And not only is a lack of cube etiquette a problem, but spending most of your workday sitting in a cubicle can make you feel like your muscles have seeped into your ergonomic chair.

According to an MSN Careers article on cubicles by Susan Bryant, anyone who has resided in Cubeland knows how difficult it is to work while trying to block out coworkers’ conversations. For example, Mary Rasher, a photo editor and cube dweller for the past 10 years, said “there is always someone who doesn’t quite get that if he can hear me, I can hear him. I am forever overhearing domestic tiffs, weird bodily functions, etc. I’ve been reduced to wearing earplugs so I can concentrate. Even then, someone’s voice manages to cut through the foam.”

These complaints are common, said Hilka Klinkenberg, founder of Etiquette International, a firm specializing in business etiquette. Consequently, Klinkenberg feels that professional etiquette in a cube environment must be elevated to a higher standard than in a traditional office because of workers’ close proximity. To help make your office more cube-friendly, she offered the following guidelines:

  • Give your cube mates a sense of control over their space
    When visiting someone’s cube, knock on the walls (even if this is only symbolic on a foam wall) before saying hello. Ask permission to enter someone’s cube, instead of barging in.
  • Don’t loiter in hallways
    Your conversations freefloat among people trying to make phone calls, read or write important documents, and concentrate on their work.
  • Realize that odors know no boundaries
    Your lunch, although appetizing to you, may make someone else’s stomach turn. If you eat at your desk, take your trash out promptly.
  • Be more aware of what you are saying and how loudly you are saying it
    Assume everyone within a four-cube radius can hear you. If you need to discuss a sensitive matter discreetly, try to find an empty office or private area.

Another common complaint among cube dwellers is the feeling they are getting “cube body.” What kind of effect does long-term sitting have on you? Mary Ann Paviledes, a registered nurse and massage therapist, said in the article that her clients who sit for an extended period of time often have experienced these physical repercussions:

  • Lower-back strain due to poor posture from being seated too long
  • Upper-back strain from scrunching your neck and shoulder together while talking on the phone
  • Muscle tightness in the chest area from leaning into a desk to type on a computer
  • Sluggish circulation in legs from prolonged inactivity

Fortunately, combating these problems is easy. Pavlides recommended the following exercises for relief:

  • Get up and walk every half hour. This keeps your circulation going, gives your eyes a break from your monitor and lets your whole body move.
  • Stretch your arms back over your head and arch your body into a “C.” This helps reverse the hunched-over posture you may sit in.
  • Stand up and roll back and forth in your heels and toes. This stretches leg muscles that cramp from too much sitting.
  • Find a doorway and place your forearms against the frame. Lean into the doorway and stretch your muscles. Don’t hold this position too long, though, or you might strain yourself.

Also, make sure you have an ergonomic chair with armrests you can raise and lower to get the right fit, and your desk or table should also be adjusted to a comfortable level.

Even if your cube mates are a bunch of annoying Neanderthals, and your boss thinks ergonomic chairs are for wimps, cube nirvana is still possible. Angela Houlton, a communications administrator and resident of cubeland for 11 years, maintains that cube happiness requires a “bloom where you’re planted” philosophy.

“I keep a lot of framed photographs on my desk and favorite places I’ve visited,” she said in the article. “I also am referred to as the ‘Plant Lady’ because of all the greenery at my desk. I’m even considering a small Persian-type rug to place at the entrance of my cube to cozy things up a bit. The way I see it is, if you have to live in a cube, you might as well make it comfortable.”