The Cubicle Conundrum

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When I entered the workplace, I was already familiar with this notion of the cubicle. After all, college bedrooms aren’t much bigger. However, I never expected the cubicle to be such a place of dread.

Table of Contents

Expectation

Society paints engineering like it’s some incredible multidisciplinary collaboration driving the creation of modern products and services. Not only are customers getting everything they ever wanted, but employees are extremely satisfied with their work.

As for the physical environment, every company is loaded with coffee shops, nap pods, and rec rooms to get the creative juices flowing. Floors are open spaces where communication can flourish. Food is served free of charge three times a day and snack rooms are located within walking distance of the work space. Every employee receives a complementary MacBook and Fitbit, and teams have regular outings that usually involve biking, golfing, or a combination of the two.

In this scene, engineering is the dream.

Reality

In reality, engineering is cubicle city. The environment is desolate and people generally keep to themselves. The only time you really see your team is in meetings of which half are remote. Most of these cube farms haven’t been touched since 1970, so there’s a pretty good chance yours won’t be upgraded any time soon. After all, engineers aren’t customer facing, so they don’t need healthy working environments.

As a previous engineer, I have become quite familiar with cubicle city. Even as conditioned as I have become to the experience, I’ve never grown to enjoy it. Cubes suck. Period.

The Solitary Confinement

I remember my first experience with cubicle city. I was just an intern, and I wasn’t even high enough on the totem pole to get my own cube. Instead, I sat at a small desk with an overhead compartment.

On my floor, there was a single window that was hidden in the executive area. For the rest of us peasants, we spent several continuous hours a day staring at brightly lit screens in darkness. Sure there were fluorescent lights strewn about the ceiling, but you never really knew what time it was.

When I finally upgraded to my own cube, I realized that not much had changed. Even with three times as much space, I still felt depressed. After all, I was still staring at a laptop screen for more consecutive hours than you’d let your kids watch TV. Isn’t that funny? We set a time limit on the amount of TV our kids can watch, but we are fine with staring at a computer screen for more hours than we sleep.

The Noise Paradox

As a software developer, noise is irritating because it makes working impossible. Even for trivial tasks, software development requires intense concentration. That’s why you often see people coding with noise canceling headphones or ear plugs. Otherwise, they’d never get anything done.

Unfortunately for developers, cubicles somehow manage to make people louder than if there were no walls at all. To make matters worse, the digital age has brought about remote meetings which means people can shout to their team from their desk.

Remote Meetings
Use the damn meeting rooms, please.

When I was in the industry, I spent some time on a team which refused to use the meeting rooms. Instead, everyone just openly spoke to each other or spent half their time on calls. It was a nice environment because you could interact with people directly, but there was very little quiet time to get work done.

The Lack Of Privacy

While I may have been surrounded by walls on three sides, my cubicle never really felt private. During one of my roles, my manager sat in a cubicle directly next to me. At just about any time, they could stare over the wall and start talking to me. On top of that, they could pretty much hear and see anything I was doing at any time.

Let’s be honest. No one does work 100% of the time they are at their desk. That’s a recipe for burnout. However, the lack of privacy means that even when you’re taking a little break you need to be pretending to work. This is somehow more exhausting than actually working because you’re essentially sidelining as an actor.

The Grind

While we’re on the subject of privacy, let’s talk about how cubicle city enables the 9-5 grind. I know I already have a whole article about the grind, but I don’t think I ever talk about the role of cubicle city.

In cubicle city, everyone knows if you’re missing. That means you can never leave early or show up late. In fact, this phenomenon is so bad in some cultures that you can’t even go home until your boss leaves. Some people think the world actually does revolve around them, I guess.

But Don’t Take My Word For It

This little Reading Rainbow throwback is becoming quite common in this series. I suppose it’s because I hate anecdotal evidence as much as the next guy, so I figure linking some articles adds to my credibility. That, or I just think their content is excellent. In either case, you should check them out. Maybe you’ll be inspired to quit your desk job as well.

If you liked these articles or you missed some along the way, look out for upcoming release of the series addendum. That’s where I’ll be collecting links to awesome articles for struggling engineers.

Mini Rant – The Explicit Version

Upon reading some of these articles, you’ll probably notice a trend in the comments. A small portion of the comments are from people like me who are in strong support of getting away from cubicle city. The rest, however, are harsh pessimists who seem to think that corporate jobs are the only way to make a living. Here’s what I have to say to them:

Wake up! Of course you think a desk job is the only realistic option to live a sound life. Corporate America has conditioned you to think that way. Desk jobs today aren’t what they were fifty years ago. Back in the day, company loyalty made sense because you were trying to grow a pension. That same loyalty is what drove job security. Hell, you used to be able to be proud of your job because your benefits would be enough to support your whole family.

 

Today, both parents need to work to make ends meet. These jobs aren’t what they used to be because businesses only care about turning a profit. In this current state of affairs, you’re just a headcount. Why not break free from this system and make your own way? That’s the American Dream.

I often feel like the type of person I’m responding to here is the same type of person who could never start their own project. These are the same people you see at work who never get anything done but feel the need to take credit for your work. They can’t mooch off your work if you break free from the system, so they’d rather knock you for trying. Honestly, I think it’s just jealousy.

Mini Rant – The Clean Version

Alright, so now you know how I really feel. Here’s a nice video that should give you an idea of the type of person I am. I could probably rant about the comments on this video as well, but we might end up with some recursive nightmare.

As always, here’s a little Jim Halpert quote for the road: “Right now, this is just a job. If I advance any higher in this company, then this would be my career. And, well, if this were my career? I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.”

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