Cubicles: Love 'em or hate 'em, they are a fact of office life that's here to stay. On the plus side, they provide some privacy -- although in most cases the noise they filter out is negligible. They also are easily invaded by co-workers, and your life -- both work and personal -- becomes an open book.
"When people work in cubicles, companies do not realize what they lose in productivity dollars," says therapist Maud Purcell of the Life Solution Center of Darien. Purcell has worked with many companies in Fairfield County through employee assistance programs and has heard all the complaints. "It's not a smart way to operate. People can't concentrate. People are interrupting constantly. With cubicles, there are no real natural boundaries. Too many people do not understand personal boundaries, and therefore have no idea how to go about respecting the boundaries of other people."
The good news is that how you deal with your cubicle world
really is all about you. Today, we offer pointers for making your work space a nicer place to spend the day.
Dealing with others
If privacy or noise is an issue, Purcell says you've got to talk with the offending person, a person she calls the "invader." "You have to learn how to speak assertively, which is so important for you to grow as a person and employee," she says.
Assertiveness is not a license for nastiness, however, so resist the urge to attack the person. Here's Purcell's formula:
1. Begin your talk with a statement that will not put the invader on the defensive. For example, "You would have no way of knowing that I am really tied up right now, but we have to talk at another time." That statement softens the blow, so much more than simply shouting "go away" or "not now."
2. For invaders who share too much personal information, Purcell suggests you say: "I know you must be having a really rough day and you don't know that I am under a tight deadline. This is just not a good time."
3. For noisy nellies: "I know you would never intend to make it hard for me to get my work done, but your voice is louder than it should be and I am having a hard time concentrating."
If you say these statements each time an invader invades, eventually he or she will catch on. If not, the next stop is your boss or team leader. But again, do not make it personal by attacking the person. Instead, explain why the invader is affecting your productivity (key here). Perhaps it's time for the boss or team leader to hold a meeting to develop guidelines about employee conduct and respect for each other's privacy.
"You have to set priorities, write them down, and then rank them in order," says Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Prioritize each item according to day, week, month and year. That alone can keep you focused and on task during the work week.
Pozen understands the importance of prioritizing, a skill he developed as a student at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, where interruptions were the norm. He had his eye on getting a stellar education, eventually securing a spot at Harvard University, an atypical college for most Bassick graduates. In his just-published book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, he details how to stay focused in every work situation. For example:
1. Create a working cubicle cocoon by wearing earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. No music needed with the latter. Just putting them on does away with most of the background sound.
2. If you need privacy, see if there is an empty conference room. This option is especially important if you are meeting with a client or need to make a personal phone call.
3. Break down each project into many tasks. As you finish a section, reward yourself. Working toward goals keeps you on task and makes it easier for you to remove Purcell's invaders from your work space. Smaller goals also help procrastinators stay on target.
4. E-mails: When you open your inbox, resist the impulse to open garbage e-mails. Hit delete instead. Check your e-mails on a schedule, say once an hour, instead of constantly. Before hitting "reply all" think about whether everyone needs to see your response. If we all did this, consider how many fewer e-mails we would have. One more: Forget the one-word e-mails such as those that say "thanks" or "OK," or are just a smiley emoticon. Better thanks is not clogging the recipient's e-mail.
5. And finally, think about whether some of your job could be done at home. "The idea of office face time is really outmoded," Pozen says. "The real question is what you produce and what you achieve." He suggests you make a proposal to your boss, giving concrete examples of how much of your work could be done at home.
Creating your space
Unless your office is renovating, you've inherited a work spot that could be decades old. Jody Myers-Fierz, owner of Color Concept Theory, a Bethel interior designer that specializes in work environments, offers these tips for sprucing up your lackluster space.
1. Many fluorescent lights contain mercury, which Myers-Fierz says can translate into headaches for some. The first stop is to ask your boss to have the overhead lighting changed to mercury-free lights. If possible, and if your boss agrees, turn off the overhead lights directly above your cubicle. That's step No. 1. Next, invest in a halogen desk lamp that offers task lighting. The halogen light will also create warm lighting, giving your space a homier feel.
2. We all know the importance of a properly placed keyboard and correct monitor height. But have you ever had an expert check out your space to make sure you are sitting correctly? If not, visit your human resources representative or talk to your boss. Ergonomics play a crucial role in productivity.
3. Bring in some warmer colors, especially if your space is primarily cool grays and blues. "Studies have shown that warm colors bring out the best in people and make them happier," Myers-Fierz says. "And the happier the person is in her space, the less health issues she will have." Quick-fixes include an area rug, pictures of your family and friends, colorful Post-it notes, or perhaps a plant or two to bring some life into your space.
4. If your company is repainting, ask that low-VOC paint be used. "The more toxic chemicals you can remove from your workplace, the more productive and healthier the staff is," Myers-Fierz says.
5. She adds that the newer cubicle structures are more soundproof and come with creature comforts, including more filing space, desks that face out so you can see approaching co-workers, doors that can be closed for more privacy, and a rainbow of colors that stray from the basic office lackluster grays.
"The most important thing for any company to understand is the importance of the work environment," Purcell adds. "That includes giving employees privacy. No privacy brings out the worst in people. Workers become like a dysfunctional family rather than team players."