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How to Manage Cubicle Workers

written by: Marjory Pilley•edited by: Ronda Bowen•updated: 12/8/2010

Do your employees spend eight or more hours at a desk surrounded by temporary walls...i.e. the dreaded cubicle? Although this workspace design can save money, the toll on productivity and morale can be significant. This article discusses how to manage workers in cubicles so everyone wins.

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    The Pro's and Con's of Cubicles

    Increase productivity and morale by learning how to manage workers in cubicles. If you are a manager or business owner, then you probably understand the attraction of cubicles. It's cheaper to erect a temporary wall than create one from bricks and mortar. They are fairly easy to rearrange. And, let's face it; there's a lot of rearranging going on these days. It also allows a quick check of what is going on. Jane is probably less likely to surf the web if she knows her supervisor could walk by at any time. Finally, the design allows for easy collaboration while at the same time providing a sense of privacy.

    Conversely, any cubicle dweller is quick to point out the downside of their use. It can be loud and hard to concentrate in a cubicle. A confidential phone conversation is next to impossible. At the end of the day, you may receive too much information about your colleagues. The setting can make employees feel more like a disposable resource than a valued asset and negatively impact morale and productivity.

    It's ironic that the inventor of cubicles, Bob Propst, is not proud of his popular invention and how it is used today. It was designed to overcome the negative aspects of working in a "bullpen" by providing a worker with some privacy and the ability to spread out. Businesses quickly picked up on the cost-savings associated with this floor plan and began packing workers in as small a space as possible, virtually eliminating the opportunity for any privacy. Since "cubes" aren't going away anytime soon, it's important for management to learn how to manage workers in cubicles so that the cost-savings are realized.

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    Set Appearance Standards

    The decorum displayed in an office portrays a company's culture. And, every industry and company has a different culture. Just think about what a customer would want to see if they walked into the sea of cubicles at a business. A banking customer would probably feel more comfortable if things were neat and orderly, without a lot of personal effects spilling out into the aisle. On the other hand, a client at an ad agency might appreciate the inspiration drawn from pictures and mementos at a desk. With this backdrop in mind, a manager must set the standards for cubicle maintenance and decorations that are consistent with the company culture.

    As part of the standards, address how employees can appropriately personalize their cubicle. And, yes...employees should have the opportunity to personalize their workspace. It can be comforting and inspire good work. But, there should be boundaries. It is never appropriate to allow offensive pictures and quotes to be tacked up on a wall for everyone to see. Too much clutter can also be distracting. Address the appearance policy for cubicles in the employee handbook or other literature so the guidelines are clear.

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    Ensure Customer Privacy

    When a cubicle worker heads out to lunch, a meeting or is finished for the day, she can't lock the door. But, sensitive documents still need to be protected. Since there is no door to lock, provide adequate storage for sensitive documents. A filing cabinet or drawer in the cubicle may be sufficient. If there are voluminous files to deal with, additional locked filing cabinet space may be needed outside the cubicle. In some business, such as banking or finance, the requirements for handling paperwork may be formally outlined in a Sensitive Document Policy. In other industries, it is just good business sense to keep work organized and filed away so that it doesn't get lost or accidentally fall into the wrong hands.

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    Promote Proper Etiquette

    Although cubicle etiquette is rarely formalized, an unwritten code usually develops for certain behaviors. The rules are dependent upon the workers, environment and company culture. If unacceptable manners are the norm, it might be worth discussing this topic at a staff meeting. Some agenda items include:

    • When is appropriate to talk over a cubicle to another employee?
    • Should you knock before entering a cubicle?
    • What is the appropriate volume for conversations?
    • If two or more employees need to discuss something, should it be done in the cubicle or elsewhere?
    • Is it appropriate to use a speaker phone?
    • When should headsets be used?
    • Should lunch be eaten in a cubicle if strong smelling odors will waft into the next cube?
    • Where should private conversations be held?
    • Can music be played in a cubicle?
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    Provide Space for Privacy

    Even the most dedicated worker will need to have a personal conversation periodically. Provide an office or conference room where the discussion may occur. Let everyone know that it is available and how it should be used. By applying this best practice on how to manage workers in cubicles, you will signal that employees are truly valued and respected.

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