Guide helps make cubicle life more bearable

Frustration over the lack of privacy in office cubicles has inspired an etiquette guide to improve the environment for workers...

David Vaughan’s first day of work at American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas, was so full of distractions from colleagues in nearby cubicles that he had trouble getting anything done.

“The first day, the first 30 minutes, were crazy with so many interruptions,” Vaughan said. “I was like, this can’t last too long.”

His five years at American, where some 500 workers toil in a 10-acre “cube farm," forced him to think hard about the workspace he inhabited. Over drinks one evening, he and a colleague sketched out on a cocktail napkin their idea for a cubicle barrier to restrict unwanted visitors.

Vaughan, now 44, and his colleague, Bob Schmidt, eventually left their day jobs with a mission: to change the cube environment. Their first product was CubeDoor, which they market online to privacy-starved office workers.

Frustrations like Vaughan’s have spawned other innovations and even an etiquette guide intended to make life in a cubicle more palatable and productive. The potential market for products like these is huge: the tens of millions of cube dwellers whose “offices” are separated from their co-workers by 4-foot high fabric-covered walls that create only the impression of privacy.

The cubicle was the brainchild of Bob Probst, a professor at the University of Colorado. Probst was hired by the Herman Miller furniture company in 1964 to research the future of office furniture, according to Joe Schwartz, the company's former marketing head. Probst wanted to create an office space that could be easily modified as companies hired or laid off office workers.

Schwartz said Probst’s original plan called for panels connected at 120-degree angles, creating some privacy but also maintaining an open office environment. Schwartz said this set-up was modified over the next several years by interior designers and architects, who favored the cube shape to cram as many workers into as small a space as possible.

The end product--a work space both small and public--has tested generations of employees. James Thompson, a former teacher who got his first job in a cubicle when he switched careers three years ago to become a production coordinator at a television network, says he wasn't prepared for office life. He recalls his shock at having to contend with co-workers who treat their cubicles as their own personal space, cutting their nails, passing wind and belching.

“It was, in general, a culture shock for me,” he said.

That shock prompted Thompson, of Arlington, Va., to write “The Cubicle Survival Guide: Keeping Your Cool in the Least Hospitable Environment on Earth,” which was published in March. He has also started a companion blog (thecubiclesurvivalguide.blogspot.com/). The guide offers cube dwellers communal rules, etiquette advice and suggestions for how to deal with violators of the cube compact, said Thompson, 37.

He says he was inspired by a discussion with a co-worker over whether or not it was polite to offer a “bless you” to a colleague who sneezes in the next cubicle. After some discussion, they arrived at the conclusion that a wish of health should be given to anyone in an adjacent cubicle, but a sneeze from two or more cubes away requires no action. They also decided that a guide to cubicle etiquette was necessary.

“The guy next to me said someone really needs to write a code of manners, which many cube communities are sorely lacking,” Thompson said.

Some examples of poor etiquette: eating food with a potent smell, posting inappropriate pictures or post cards and engaging in loud personal phone conversations.

“That’s what cell phones are for,” Thompson said. “All you have to do is get up and walk away or go outside.”

In addition to etiquette rules, the guide offers suggestions for how to fend off co-workers who may be inclined to steal office supplies from cube dwellers who are on vacation or taking a day off. “Office chairs are a really big commodity,” Thompson said.

To prevent theft, Thompson suggests cube workers plant a Web cam on the top of their computer. The camera need not be monitored, only left on to present the appearance of a security camera. Or there is what he calls the “Three Mile Island” plan, in which the vacationer leaves crumpled up tissues and a tube of Neosporin in a prominent place in his cubicle to make his possessions appear less desirable.

Other stratagems help the hapless cube dweller deal with overly nosy bosses. Tactics include placing a small mirror on a cubicle wall so that the occupant can see anyone at the entrance of the cube, and installing wireless video baby monitors to keep an eye on foot traffic near the cubicle.

Vaughan and Schmidt have developed their own simple set of privacy devices. As Vaughan looked around his office floor, he noticed co-workers had set up makeshift barriers with shower curtains and duct tape. He and Schmidt decided there was a need for more aesthetically pleasing privacy barriers. So they started CubeSmart, a company that sells simple barriers designed to block the entrance to a cubicle.

The barrier, which costs $35, is essentially a window shade positioned horizontally that can be pulled out across the cube opening when a worker needs privacy. The CubeBanner is a 1 1/2-foot-tall translucent banner with an American flag logo and a script that reads “I’m busy.” The CubeDoor Classic is a polymer mesh device with no logo that allows someone approaching the cube to see through it, but increases the illusion of privacy. Finally, they offer the CubeDoor, an opaque barrier that offers the most privacy.

There are some aspects of life in the cube that office workers simply can’t avoid, like extremely loud cube neighbors and offensive odors. Although Vaughan says CubeSmart doesn’t have any anti-odor devices ready at the moment, they have discussed some possible remedies.

“We’ve talked about something that maybe looks like a motorcycle helmet,” Vaughan said. “If you have an all-enclosed stormtrooper type helmet, you could make private phone calls and you wouldn’t have to put up with the smells.”