How I learned to stop worrying and love the cubicle

July 13, 2015 · 7 minute read

HackerNews Discussion

My name is Forrest Brazeal, and I work in a cubicle.

Sometimes it feels like I’m in the minority, especially among my tech-sector colleagues. Modern collaboration tools like Google Hangouts, Slack and Atlassian’s HipChat make working from home easier than ever; text, audio and video integrate to form a (seemingly) flawless illusion of constant connection. With software like this, who needs reality? Especially if reality is a numbered cubicle in a sweaty high-rise?

I’ll admit that working in a cube farm can feel a little soul-crushing at times. The daily commute eats into my free time and the break room keeps running out of hot chocolate packets. But every time I have to work remotely for one reason or another, it’s not long before I get the itch to go back to the office. Why would I prefer my cubicle over the carefree, location-independent lifestyle, you ask? Let’s look at three common gripes about cubicle work and see how they compare to the supposed advantages of working from home.

1. Collaboration The gripe: Staying in touch online is easier than being stuck in an office. My view: There is no substitute for real live interaction between coworkers.

Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography of Steve Jobs captures a man whose ideas often ran counter to the prevailing Silicon Valley wisdom. One of Jobs’ pet peeves was the tech sector’s work-from-home trend, as seen in this quote from Isaacson’s book:

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” -Steve Jobs
Jobs was a maverick, but Apple isn’t the only Silicon Valley giant betting that great work happens when people get in the same room. When Yahoo decided to ban working from home a couple of years ago, they sent out a memo observing in part that “[s]ome of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings”. Yahoo’s new policy is the brainchild of CEO Marissa Mayer, who had promoted similar ideas in her previous job as a Google executive.

These tech execs talk a lot about the impact of human proximity on creativity, and my own experience confirms that great ideas are often found draped over the wall between two cubicles. But you don’t have to be solving the mysteries of the universe to enjoy the benefits of working close to colleagues. I’m young and fairly new to my current job, so I’ve probably spent more than my share of time “shoulder surfing” and otherwise studying my more experienced coworkers. I’m sure that with all my questions and interruptions, at times I’ve made some of these men and women wish they worked from home! But I’ve learned so much from watching these people–not just by calling them on the phone or asking disjointed questions over online chat, but literally sitting with them day by day and observing how they do work–that I can’t imagine wanting to isolate myself from their environment.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”, the Old Testament book of Proverbs wisely says.  I’ve learned that once you find a group of sharp people, it’s important to hone your own skills by getting as close to them as possible–and the next cubicle is about as close as you can get.

2. Career advancement The gripe: Working in a cubicle enslaves you to micromanaging bosses. My view: Working with other people keeps you engaged and visible.

High-sounding platitudes about corporate collaboration aren’t the only reason to do your work in the office. This BBC piece cites several studies showing that managers tend to give higher raises and quicker promotions to people they see on a regular basis. Work-from-homers run the risk of being “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”, no matter how valuable they may be to the company’s bottom line. Obviously not all managers give preference to employees who sit close by, but don’t underestimate the power of so-called “passive face time” to increase the perceived worth of your contributions. It appears that, at least for now, the corporate ladder has its feet firmly planted in a cubicle.

I’ll be very honest here and admit that working in the office has another pragmatic benefit for me: I tend to get more work done when I know other people are around. The impulse to check my phone seems a lot less urgent when the director is sitting nearby than when I’m home alone. The lack of privacy in a cubicle can feel restrictive at times, but it also provides a measure of accountability.

This seems like a good place to bring up the larger issue of distractions. Cube farms are notorious for being noisy, exposed to interruptions and full of “prairie dogs” - people who pop their heads above the cubicle walls to engage in loud conversations.  Reducing these distractions is a primary goal for many people who work remotely.

I struggle with office distractions as much as anybody, but I feel like working from home isn’t really a solution for me. For one thing, there are plenty of other distractions at home. (My refrigerator calls more loudly to me than a whole office full of prairie dogs.) For another thing, as technology has improved, many of the traditional workplace diversions like unnecessary meetings and impromptu conversations have crept right into remote employees’ schedules. In fact, several of my work-from-home colleagues are routinely forced to sign out of the team’s instant messaging system during the day to cut down on interruptions. And that brings us right back to the “passive face time” dilemma, because if you’re not in the office and nobody can get ahold of you, you have to be concerned about appearing to be off work entirely.

3. Boundaries The gripe: Cubicles are mentally stifling and physically confining. My view: Cubicles help you put necessary boundaries on your work.

Let’s face it: cubicles are not the most interesting places to be. Given the choice, I would much rather be relaxing in a coffe shop or sitting under a tree than hunched over a computer screen in a carpet-lined box. But the enclosed space and regular hours have a subtle mental benefit: when I walk out of my office building at 5 PM, my brain says “done with work now.” Work is something that happens in the cube, not something that I tinker with at home during the evening. If I worked from home regularly, I’m pretty sure I’d join the crowd of people who’ve discovered that if you’re used to working anytime, anywhere, you probably will do just that–on evenings and weekends as well as during the normal workday. Not that I don’t work late from time to time, but I do strive to maintain a proper work-life balance. And it’s well established that working more than about 40 hours a week doesn’t just wreak havoc on your personal life - it eventually decreases your effectiveness on the job, too.

So long as it’s not overly long, a commute between home and the office doesn’t have to be a bad thing, either. Driving a few minutes to work in the morning helps me get my head into the day, organizing tasks and generally psyching myself up. By the time I get to the office, I’m a lot more energized and alert than I would be if I rolled out of bed and immediately sat down at the computer. And sometimes a “burndown” period driving home after a tough day at the office helps me transition mentally so that I don’t take out work stress on my family.

In conclusion: I have worked with many great people who are partly or fully remote employees. Almost without exception, they are professional, available and very good at their jobs. And it’s quite possible that as I continue to grow and mature, I’ll also reach a point where the advantages of a flexible schedule outweigh the potential costs of losing regular access to colleagues. But at this stage in my career, I feel like my place is in the office.

My name is Forrest Brazeal, and I work in a cubicle. Frankly, at least for now, I kind of like it.

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