How to Cope With Life Inside a Small Cubicle

A young woman sitting in her office cubicle
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A cubicle is a semi-private workspace with walls, a desk surface and usually bins, shelves, or drawers. Pieces of modular furniture are connected like building blocks to meet an organization's ​office space needs. Cubicles give businesses and government organizations the ability to add, remove, and reconfigure office space relatively quickly.

Compared to hard-walled offices, cubicles also allow for an organization to have a smaller physical footprint thus reducing the cost of owned or leased space. Many organizations have a mix of hard-walled offices and cubicles. The more authority an employee has in an organization, the more likely the person has a hard-walled office.

Positive Aspects of Cubicle Life

Working in a cubicle environment has several benefits:

  • Your own space: It may not be much, but your little piece of the office is yours. You can decorate it, however you want (within reason, of course). If people want to find you, they know the first place to look.
  • Meeting people: If you're the new kid on the block, you'll have people constantly walking by your desk. The chattier ones will introduce themselves and others to you. You can also wander around to meet people.
  • Quick collaboration: Say you're working on a project with another person or a few people. You can walk a few paces, discuss what you need to and be back at your desk in moments.

    Negative Aspects of Cubicle Life

    Working in a cubicle comes with its challenges:

    • Hard to concentrate: With phones ringing and people talking, concentrating at your cubicle can be challenging.
    • Little or no privacy: You have no door and little to block sound emanating from your workspace.
    • Small workspace: All your personal equipment, supplies, and belongings have to fit in an area less than 50 square feet. You may feel a little boxed in at times.
    • Lack of natural light: Unless you have a cubicle adjacent to a window, you're unlikely to get much natural light while you're sitting at your desk.

      Faux Pas in Cubicle Land

      People can be downright oblivious that they aren't the only ones in the office. Don't be the guy who doesn't know how to act in a cubicle environment. Here are some faux pas that will draw the ire of your work neighbors:

      • Using speakerphone: Sure your conference call is important, but the whole floor doesn't need to hear it. Even if you plan to be on the call for hours, never use your speakerphone during business hours. If you plan on making and receiving an inordinate amount of calls, ask your employer to provide a telephone headset.
      • Talking loudly: Other people are trying to concentrate on work, so please use your inside voice. After a while, even nosy people will get tired of hearing your conversations.
      • Sneaking up behind people: Few things are more unnerving than turning slightly and seeing someone standing right behind you. Announce your entry into someone else's workspace. Find a hard surface like the connector pieces of the wall to knock on.
      • Eating smelly foods: No matter how delicious you may find your reheated grilled fish, most people don't want to smell fish when they're not eating it. Even if you're eating something that will make people's mouths water, you don't want them to feel bad about their PB&Js.
      • Having disgusting conversations: No one wants to hear about your latest mole biopsy or gynecological appointment.
      • Doing disgusting things. Clipping your fingernails or flossing your teeth can be a multi-sensory barrage. No one wants to experience that.

        Tools for Surviving Cubicles

        Your employer will provide all the standard office supplies you need to get the job done, but there are a few you'll need to maintain your sanity in the cubicle environment:

        • Headphones: These are an absolute essential for working in a cubicle. Headphones can enable you to listen to audio from your computer without disturbing others. They're also handy when you have a noisy neighbor. You can plug your headphones into your computer or MP3 player to acquire a more favorable soundtrack to your day. If you're really sensitive to noise, you may want to invest in some noise-canceling headphones.
        • Small mirror: A small mirror strategically placed helps you spot people coming into your workspace before they startle you.
        • Space heater with a fan setting: Many buildings prohibit the use of space heaters and desk fans, but people break the rules for the sake of comfort. If your building manager can't seem to keep the thermostat at a reasonable temperature, a space heater with a fan setting will help you whether the indoor temperature is too hot or too cold. If you get cold often, consider keeping a sweater, shawl, or blanket at work.
        • Family photos: Remember, you have a life after 5:00 p.m. Seeing your family can give you an energy boost to tackle the day's challenges. And most people are interested. Don't go nuts, though. Two or three framed photos will suffice.
        • Red stapler: Just kidding, Milton.

        Great Cubicle Pranks

        Proceed with caution. Pranks can get you fired, but here are some classics:

        • Wrapping: For this trick, you need several hours and a lot of newspaper. It is pretty simple. You wrap every item in the victim's cubicle. Don't forget to wrap the trash can. Around Christmas, you can use gift wrap.
        • Packing peanuts: Seal up the person's cubicle entrance with plastic wrap. Dump packing peanuts into the cubicle until they reach the top of the walls. Don't try this one if the victim has an urgent assignment due that day.
        • Rubber bands: This one is much more subtle. While the victim is sitting in their desk chair, shoot a rubber band at the ceiling directly above the victim. The rubber band will fall straight down. Because the sound of the rubber band shooting off your hand is almost silent, the victim will have no idea which of his neighbors is shooting rubber bands. Shoot about one rubber band a day, varying the times of day until the victim realizes it's you.