The Beauty of the Humble Cubicle

A layman’s view (not an architect)

We spend a lot of time in the office. Sometimes we spend more time at the office than we do at home. While this is not a healthy way to live, sometimes it’s necessary. Some of the places I have worked have managed to make my home away from home feel more comfortable than others. My favourite is an office with a door in a central location, my second favourite is a cubicle near a window.

An office with a door is a rare and dying species. The upside of the door is 1) you can have private meetings about sensitive topics and 2) you can make appointments with your esthetician without having to speak in code. There is always a downside and for me it is the risk of feeling trapped. When I’m in someone else’s office for a meeting or just to chat there are social rules that keep me there, and depending on the situation, I may have to be rude to leave the room.

If you can’t have an office with a door, then try to get a cubicle with walls and access to outdoor light. I won’t go into why natural light is good for you because I think that’s obvious. The upside of a cubicle is that you get visual quiet meaning that the walls create visual boundaries defining my space so that I can ignore everything beyond that line and concentrate on my work. The beauty of a cubicle is that it gives you a sense of focus while still letting you yell across to your neighbour like you’re yelling at your roommate in another room. The downside is auditory intimacy. You can keep informed of what’s going on with the whole team without having to actually engage, you just listen to other people engaging. Then you pretend you don’t hear the information that you shouldn’t have heard, like you pretend you are alone on a bus packed full of people.

If we use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as our guide, cubicles satisfy us on the first two fundamental levels: it provides a sense of shelter – my home away from home; and it does not take away our sense of security the way an open unassigned desk space can. That creeped out feeling we get when we feel we’re being watched is an evolutionary instinct that warns us when we are prey. Being visible to everyone all the time makes us feel like prey. This adds a layer of stress because we feel our safety is at risk. So an open unassigned desk space can make us feel homeless and afraid.

The beauty of a cubicle is that it gives us the best of both worlds, lower facility costs but a sense of ownership and privacy. Without the benefits of closed doors maybe but also without the risks.

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