The Diversity Dilemmas of Cubicles

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jan 16, 2008

Just as employees come in all shapes and sizes, so too do possible problems with cubicle living, experts say. Issues include employee religious beliefs, disabilities, persona​lity type, work style and job duties.

Dilbert, the cubicle-dwelling cartoon engineer, brought many such problems to public light. Dilbert’s boss put it this way: “When you grow up, you’ll be put in a container called a cubicle. The bleak oppressiveness will warp your spine and destroy your capacity to feel joy.”

Cubicles can contribute to a sense of being separated and stuck in a box, says Cindy Graves Wigglesworth, president of Conscious Pursuits Inc., a training company specializing in spiritual intelligence and board member of the Association for Spirit at Work.

“You have to develop skills in working with neighbors, and remember to keep your voice down,” she says, adding that supervisors often have to oversee petty disputes in such work environments: “Life is full of opportunities for us to be petty; the manifestations of the pettiness change.”

Though cubicles are not an optimal working condition and do present some hardships, she says, a few hardships are the norm for every job. “I don’t think [a cubicle environment] is necessarily more of a challenge than other work environments,” she says.

The impact of cubicles varies from person to person and from job to job, experts say.“Some people find they are more productive if they can work uninterrupted, while others may need to bounce ideas off one another,” says Debra Ruh, president and founder of TecAccess, a technology company in Rockville, Va.

This may be particularly true for employees with disabilities. “Certain types of disabilities may lend themselves to different environments,” Ruh says. For example, a blind employee would use a screen reader, which could be distracting in a cubicle environment: “If a computer is talking, you need headphones,” Ruh says.

But Ruh says an employee who wears headphones all day will lose the natural interaction that takes place in a cubicle environment. However, since the same is true for deaf employees, who won’t be able to pick up on office banter that occurs outside their field of vision, Ruh suggests organizations use instant messaging to help employees stay connected to co-workers without disturbing others.

Understand Accommodation Needs

“Employees with cognitive impairments may experience a variety of difficulties when performing job duties in a cubicle environment,” says Suzanne Gosden Kitchen, a cognitive/neurological consultant for the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), in an article on the organization’s web site. “These impairments may be temporary or permanent and may affect overall work performance, including quality of work, conduct, and productivity.”

According to Kitchen, cognitive impairments might be a result of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, cancer, depression, fibromyalgia, learning disability, migraine headache, multiple sclerosis or post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as many others. She says cubicle environments can pose a wide range of challenges for individuals with such problems as:
  • Disorganization.
  • Distractions caused by auditory and visual stimuli.
  • Difficulty managing time.
  • Difficulty engaging in work-related communication.
  • Disorientation, which might affect their ability to find people, materials or services.
  • A need to control the temperature.

JAN provides free accommodation guidance to employers and employees and has dealt with a variety of cubicle-related situations. For example, an employee working in a cubicle in a high-traffic area by the copy machine experienced migraine headaches triggered by the noise level. The employer accommodated the employee by moving her to an area with less traffic and gave her an environmental sound machine to mask office noise.

According to JAN, an employee experiencing migraines was provided with a noise cancelling headset and natural task lighting in lieu of overhead fluorescents.

Another accommodation situation addressed by JAN involved a journalist with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) who experienced sensitivity to visual and auditory distractions. The employee was given an environmental sound machine and a private, high-walled cubicle workspace in a low-traffic area.

Kitchen says employers can accommodate employees in a variety of ways, depending on their needs. Strategic placement of workspaces away from noisy or high-traffic areas can help, for example, as can taller cubicle walls, cubicle doors, sound absorption panels and white-noise machines.

Avoid Religious Conflict

Cubicles also pose challenges in the realm of religious diversity, experts say. What an employee chooses to display in his or her cubicle is an important consideration when those of assorted beliefs and non-belief work together, according to Michelle Weber, assistant director, religious diversity in the workplace for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding: “It’s a much more visible area because colleagues and clients walking through can see what you have in your workspace.” She says this can raise concerns—and possibly claims—associated with religious expression at work.

“There are also issues for those who need to pray during the workday,” Weber says, depending on whether they have another place to go such as a quiet room or conference room. “It can be really uncomfortable and distressing for the person doing the praying to do so in the middle of the workplace,” she says.

The availability of small private areas that can be accessed by employees as needed can help address some of these needs, while a policy on office décor can address what employees can and cannot display in their work areas.

Acknowledge Generational Work Styles

Cubicle issues don’t end there, however. Each generational group has different expectations for the workplace: what they want from employers, how they prefer to interact, how they want to structure their days and even the kinds of furnishings and amenities they prefer, suggests furniture manufacturer Allsteel Inc. “The arrangement of furniture and workspaces must allow for and support collaboration between the generations," said Kelly Sterk, workplace research manager for Allsteel Inc., in a press release.

For example, some boomers prefer quiet areas such as a private office that demonstrates their rise through the organizational ranks. "Younger workers often set a higher priority on the freedom to work when and where it suits them," Sterk said, as well as the ability to express themselves in their work environment.

Sterk says generational differences can affect decisions organizations make about workspaces such as choosing:

  • Large offices and physical markers of individual success vs. collaborative space.
  • Status indicators like leather upholstery and wood furniture vs. modular furniture.
  • Face-to-face communication vs. e-mail and instant messaging.
  • Workstation size, lighting, temperature and sufficient storage vs. more flexibility, autonomy and socialization.

Today's office spaces must be many things to many people, according to Sterk. Companies must balance functional requirements with settings that reflect employee styles and preferences. For example, she says, workstation clusters can be organized to allow workers privacy to concentrate on their tasks and then roll their chairs nearby easily to confer with teammates when needed.

Basic Cubicle Etiquette

Cube dwellers need to follow some basic ground rules related to privacy, noise and smells to maintain a productive and neighborly environment, according to Jill Bremer of Bremer Communications, an image consulting and communication skills firm. Among her recommendations:

  • Never enter someone’s cubicle without permission. Behave as though cubicles have doors.
  • Try to pick up your phone after one or two rings. Set the ringer volume at a low level.
  • Use your “library voice.”
  • Don’t talk through cube walls or congregate outside someone’s cube. For impromptu meetings, go to a conference room or break room.
  • Eat quietly. Avoid gum-popping, humming, slurping and pen tapping.
  • Avoid perfume and cologne. Your neighbors may have allergies.

“Privacy is an issue in a cubicle environment for all employees, including those employees with cognitive impairments,” Kitchen says. “Setting clear rules for communication in and around cubicle spaces that regulate voice control, duration of work or private conversations, and [which include] disciplinary actions, will help control noise levels, avoid congregations of chatty employees, and extinguish behavior such as calling out over cubicle walls.”

Above all, Ruh says, employers should find out how employees do their best work, whether that is in the midst of a group or in a quiet environment. This is true for introverts and extraverts as well as those with cognitive disabilities, she says. “It’s a matter of determining if a particular person needs a social environment or not. It’s less about their cognitive disability than it is about who they are as a person.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is manager of SHRM Online’s diversity focus area.


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