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Bill is a boisterous member of the sales team at InoTech, a consulting company specializing in computer systems and networks in Fairfax, Va. He’s social and talkative. When he gets on the horn, forget about quiet time. His booming voice has become a running joke among his cubicle mates. It’s funny to everyone except Kim. She sits in a cubicle next to Bill’s. Kim is low-key, someone who needs peace and quiet to get her work done.
So what did HR director Alain Hebert, PHR, do about the potential problem brewing between Kim and Bill? Absolutely nothing. And—in this situation—nothing was the right thing to do, says Lisa Harriman, who supervises Kim and Bill and serves as the company’s director of marketing and PR.
That’s not to suggest that there’s no role for HR in keeping the peace. In fact, the reason management’s hands-off policy worked so well for Kim and Bill is that Hebert’s department had already successfully established good relationships and communication between cubicle mates. As a result, Bill and Kim resolved their problem without any intervention.
"Kim figured out how to handle the situation on her own" by wearing headphones, says Harriman. She adds: "Working in a cube environment is a lot like living in a house. You’re going to encounter idiosyncrasies, and you’re going to have to learn to deal."
For employees, learning to deal may be complicated by the fact that they aren’t exactly enamored with cubicles. Only 7 percent of workers say they prefer cubicles to any other type of work environment, according to a recent study by Steelcase Inc., an office furnishings manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Those who like cubicles, however, point out some significant upsides, such as developing an open, communicative and connected staff. Just ask Harriman. "I spent 15 years of my professional life in a cube; when I came to InoTech and they put me in an office, I hated it," she says. "I still miss all the conversation and inside jokes."
One of the biggest benefits of working in a cube is the camaraderie that can develop between employees. It’s an aspect of cubicle work life that HR can emphasize. "If HR is sensitive, it can really influence the thinking of employees so that they perceive the positive sides of cube life," says Harold Stolovitch, president of Los Angeles-based Harold D. Stolovitch & Associates Ltd., a performance consulting firm.
Ultimately, cubicles are here to stay, so workers and HR need to adapt and make the best of them. Perhaps Hebert says it best: "The cubes are a given. Now what is HR going to do to make them a place that people want to be?"
Flexibility Is Key
Hebert’s chief rule for promoting neighborliness among cubicle workers: Avoid rules. "In general, it’s much better that cube mates work out difficulties themselves whenever possible," says Hebert. "You don’t want the company imposing rules on people. You want to give employees as much control as possible."
Does it make sense to develop a formal written policy? Only if it will truly matter to the business. "If it doesn’t, keep it out," says Lynn Kearny, an Oakland, Calif.-based performance improvement consultant and co-author of Creating Workplaces Where People Can Think (Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1994).
"HR [should ask] questions about individual work needs, rather than issue edicts," says Phyl Smith, a San Francisco-based workplace designer and Kearny’s co-author.
Policies should be generated by employees who work in cubicles, not by management, but employees may not know where to begin. That’s where HR comes in with suggestions.
"You want to offer options, not procedures," Hebert says. "Have staff members design their own cube etiquette. Set it up in the context of a game like a comic book so you keep it light and fun. And plan on revising it as issues arise."
"If you give employees too many rules about how to act in their cubicles, you’re insulting their intelligence," says Jean Schmidt, vice president of HR for TCS Management Inc., a software developer and management consulting firm in Brentwood, Tenn. "Just give them a little flavor of what you expect and trust them to have some common sense."
Employees will work better if they’re given greater autonomy. In addition, there will always be problems no one can anticipate in a written policy. "There will always be situations that come up," Harriman says. "Have faith that people are mature enough to handle them."
If you still want a written policy, commit to ink only those rules that your company considers absolute musts. For instance, TCS has a policy prohibiting hot food in cubicles. "It’s an issue that has a real impact on productivity. Hot food carries odors, and people find that very distracting," Schmidt says.
So what happened when an employee tried sneaking in take-out Chinese? "The others jumped on her. I felt bad for the poor soul because they were all over her," Schmidt says. "Because we never allow hot food, everyone smelled it immediately."
Although Schmidt said she could’ve stepped in, she didn’t have to. The woman’s co-workers shamed her into taking her food down to the cafeteria.
Make Room for Privacy
It’s a fact: Cubicle life is noisier than office life. No matter how many acoustic tiles you install, no matter how good the layout, there will always be noise when people work side by side.
"Our attention is a scarce resource and needs protecting," Kearny says. "Noise can interfere with it." Her solutions? "Let people wear headphones and listen to music to drown out cube noise so long as it isn’t affecting their work. And consider establishing a period of time every day when everyone knows they are to work quietly."
Stolovitch suggests that HR take the pulse of cubicle cities periodically to find out where the noisy spots are.
HR also should set the tone for the organization. "We remind everyone to keep their voices low," Schmidt says. In the few instances where a reminder hasn’t worked, Schmidt has called short meetings. "I just say that folks aren’t as productive as they’d like to be because there’s too much noise," she says. "Rarely do I find that anyone is making noise on purpose."
Another way to hold down noise—and provide cubicle dwellers with some privacy—is to make available private spaces with telephones. A small room with a phone or even a reconstituted phone booth—with a regular office phone, not a pay phone—can do the trick, says Hebert.
Harriman currently has an open-door policy allowing cubicle workers to boot her out of her office when they need the phone, an arrangement she admits isn’t always convenient. She suggests yet another option: Make a few cellular phones available for workers to share so they can go elsewhere for privacy.
Many companies install phones in conference rooms so they can serve as places for private calls; they also can serve as places for workers to meet or just get away to think quietly. Such private areas can offer a much needed respite during crunch times. "There have to be areas of privacy where people can withdraw," says Stolovitch. Harriman agrees. "Ideally there should be a place where employees can retreat and management can’t watch them," she says.
Phone calls aren’t the only reason workers might need private space. For meetings, management should make sure that conference rooms provide real privacy, with doors to shut and solid walls, Harriman says.
Providing a conference room also can help when people need to discuss sensitive matters, such as high-security information or reprimands. Just be careful with the latter, Harriman warns. If managers use the conference room for every reprimand, a closed door will come to signal trouble. The conference room will lose its purpose as a safe place for confidential conversations.
When space is tight, a single room could provide phones, private meeting space and resources if needed, notes Kearny.
Employees also need to make their cubicles places where they can work without fear of constant interruption. "There should be ways of signaling that you’re busy and can’t be interrupted," Stolovitch says. He recalls one company’s solution: yellow police tape stretched across a cubicle entrance. "It’s rather crude, but the point comes across," he says.
Hebert says that doorbells may be another solution. "People have to ring the bell before walking in. While it’s not a door, it does give the illusion of a barrier," he explains. "You could also give everyone a spinning wheel to post in front of the cubicle that says ‘we’re open’ or ‘we’re closed.’"
"Colored flags that you can hang above your cube and that are visible around the room can help," says Mark Gorkin, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist and the creator of StressDoc.com, a web site that deals with workplace stress issues. "Or, ask colleagues to float paper planes in before approaching." By offering a variety of options, HR not only helps employees manage their time and reduce interruptions, but also signals to them that although they don’t have doors, their time and work are valued.
Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.
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