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net.wars: Cubiclife

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 February 2006


"It's kind of small," commented my friend Ken, examining my new acquisition with the thoughtful air of a cognoscente. Given that I've hardly ever worked in offices and have never had a cubicle before, I have no basis for comparison. But I've read enough Scott Adams to know the right next thing to say to retrieve my failing status: "It has a window."

Wendy M Grossman

"Oh, a window."

To be precise, it has two-thirds of a window. I wonder if Romesh, who is in the cubicle next partition and has the other third, and I will get into a window tug-of-war, as Michael Palin and his next-closet neighbour in Brazil yanked back and forth on the desk they shared, each trying to secure a larger portion.

One question everyone asks is, "How high are the walls? In cubicle quality, apparently taller is better. Short means you can peer into your neighbour's space without getting up. Medium produces what everyone here calls the "gopher" phenomenon: heads pop up above the partitions like gophers poking their noses out of their holes. Tall (about five foot eight) is what we have, and when I want to see out of my spot I wind up in an arabesque on my desk surveying the entire office proclaiming, "I'm king of the world!" Actually saying this yesterday baffled some of my office mates, who are far too serious and hard-working ever to have seen that utterly awful movie.

The last time I worked in an office for any length of time (more than an hour or two), it was in London 15 years ago. It was open-plan, and I managed to offend everyone by joining loud conversations they were having out in the middle of the room, ten feet from my desk.

Here, perhaps because people have greater visual privacy, joining in is welcomed, and you find yourself talking frequently to disembodied voices, like a giant, 3D teleconference call. The only problem is that you can't tell, when someone doesn't respond, whether they're ignoring you, annoyed, working hard, absent, or wearing headphones. Plus, getting up and walking around to see someone may be misread as indicating that your errand is truly significant, as opposed to just killing time while you're waiting for the printer to finish.

Of course, none of this is news to people who work in offices, but to a newcomer it's a series of etiquette tests. How long do you talk to someone you know fairly well when you see him casually every day? When your co-workers say they can make space for you in the breakroom for lunch, how often should you accept so they don't feel you don't like them while still making them feel you're there working at the job you're being paid to do? Is it rude to mark your milk with your name? How many Wiki pages must a man walk down before he can reasonably expect to get someone to answer a technical question? And can you pacify them into compliance with chocolate?

(Yesterday, three of us took a brief hajj to Frys, the Akihabara of the San Francisco Bay Area. I came back with two bags of Ghirardelli dark chocolate squares filled with raspberry. "You went to Frys for chocolate?" No, I said. "I went to Frys and chocolate happened." The chocolates could be important currency, like cigarettes in a prison or a war. I must test this theory. If it doesn't work out, I will have to eat them myself. At great personal sacrifice.)

It took only two days for me to utterly lose patience with the heavy overhead fluorescent lights.

It was a tricky job – there's a clever arrangement of clips intended to defeat such efforts – but in the end we succeeded in removing all four bulbs and stashing them down the open corner behind my L-shaped desk. I am given to understand that in this office the maintenance folks will not come round and "fix" it. My next-door neighbour, however, who turns on every light she can find, glanced over the next day and said, "Can you really see anything?" I could not convince her that backlit laptop screens did not need extra illumination and that in fact the light spill from other areas was enough: from her brilliantly lit vantage point (think London's District line trains at night), it looked as though I was sitting in a patch of dark.

You may be wondering why we're all here. This is the Internet age, and these are people who telecommunicate by multiple channels all the time. In the end, it turns out, when you want to build teamwork there is still just no substitute, Internet or no Internet, for shmushing everyone together in a conference room at regular intervals. Even if to get there you have to spend three hours on a train held up by what the conductor yesterday morning delicately called "passenger issues" (a death on the line).

But I must go: there are free! burritos! for lunch today! Actually, they're not free: the price is participating in some kind of office bonding exercise. But really, I'm a freelance writer. Free food is good food, we know this.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).