From “The Office” to Dilbert, the lowly office cubicle is a frequent target of ridicule. It’s not difficult to find descriptions of “cube farms” . . .
. . . with modifiers like “soulless” or “dehumanizing.” And with drab, colourless cubicles like this one . . .
. . . this scorn seems well-deserved.
But I want to take a moment to reconsider the cube as a not-that-bad place for knowledge workers to hang their hats.
As Catherine’s photo demonstrates, one can personalize a cubicle, at least within the confines of the demountable partitions that define the perimeter of your space. Some take the idea of personalization to an extreme . . .
. . . while others are content to live with fairly modest marks of their own personality.
I have worked in almost every imaginable kind of space, from Herman Miller’s inaptly named Action Office to an expensively minimalist system . . .
. . . where my greatest frustration was the lack of wall space for the images that I love to surround myself with. Sadly, many of my colleagues had even less wall space than this. My current workspace . . .
. . . is a combination of inexpensive tables and a fairly handsome system of Haworth partitions I bought used from the previous occupant of my office space. These partitions (one can hardly call them cubicles) . . .
. . . help to create a sense of personal space for my coworkers, while still preserving an open, collaborative work environment.
Which brings me to an important point: The alternative to a cubicle is not a private office. Most knowledge workers will never get a private office, because offices (and their furnishings) are substantially more expensive than cubicles. No, the realistic alternative to the cube farm is much worse:
The desk farm. Endless rows of desks in a workplace that is truly dystopian. Kind of makes you a bit sentimental for the cube, doesn’t it?
Being shown the door is another, even less desirable alternative to the cubicle, one I have experienced myself. For some, sudden cubelessness is the impetus to open a bakery or a dog-walking service; good for them, because they probably always wanted to anyway. But for most, being cubeless can make one wistful for the meagre comforts of an open-plan workstation.
Not the corner office, exactly, but far better than where much of the world has toiled for much of human history.
Finally, a cubicle can be a place of love, and beauty, and art, as seen here in the former workspace of my friend Becky Pruitt . . .
From its magnetic poetry to its Polaroid camera collection to its literary wallpaper (look under the storage bin), Becky’s cube was a work of art inhabited by a worker. It was more than a cube: it was a place of work—a work place—that both expressed and embodied the humanity of the worker.
Like almost anything else, even a cubicle can flourish if it is treated with love.