Life In The Fishbowl – Nasty, Brutish and Short


Fugitive From the Cubicle Police

Image via Wikipedia

It’s an odd thing, but as time has progressed, and I gain professional experience, I get less and less privacy in my work space.

I think it is mostly the nature of the workplace these days, as opposed to saying anything about me, but as I sit in this fishbowl, listening to all of the loud conversations around me, I can’t help but appreciate the irony of it all.

Not counting after school jobs, those as a camp counselor, or the military, my first real, full-time, “permanent” type gig was at a law firm. Even there I did start out based in the mail room, and then the file room – these, like my previous experiences, were pretty open to my coworkers. But within a couple of years I had been promoted to the position of Litigation Paralegal, one of the perks of which was my own private office.

It was not much bigger than a jail cell, and in fact smaller than any cubicle I have had since. Measuring perhaps three feet by four feet, it was basically a desk, chairs, a wall and a door. You couldn’t even really close the door, as there was no ventilation in the tiny closet, but it was a space all my own. I was effectively separated from the rest of my colleagues by a thin veneer of cheap fabric stretched over pre-fab erector-set steel frames.

Sure, I did work in that tiny office – being a paralegal in a law firm actually meant a lot of long hours, and it was not unusual to come in early one morning to find one or another of us curled up under our desk after pulling off most of an all-nighter. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence, to be sure, but it did happen.

Cubicle Farm

Next I moved on to Thomson, where starting off as a contractor I was bumped from location to location. When I was finally hired, I was assigned my own cubicle. The size of the cubicle did grow over time, not to mention its location, shifted from spot to spot more than a dozen times over the eleven years I was gainfully employed by the company.

When I started only the Chairman Emeritus – the original founder who once had an apartment carved out of the floor space – and the President had actual offices with walls and doors. Even VPs had cubicles – large cubicles, to be sure, off in corners and against the windows, with plenty of space between them and the low-rent area of peons clumped into the center of the floor.

It wasn’t too long before VPs did get some walls – pretty much the same pre-fab walls I had at the law firm, though these were made of cheap pressboard designed to look like real, once-living wood. Doors could be closed, offering some privacy for these executives. Of course the building had not been designed for these walls – specifically, all of the heating and AC vents became trapped within these walls, thus depriving the nameless peons not only of natural sunlight, but fresh re-circulated, re-constituted air as well.

There was an uproar when a former VP of mine had instituted, for her new group, what people were calling “the fishbowl”. It wasn’t too different from the cubicles these workers already occupied, in terms of space, but it was essentially an open area. In groups of four, six, or eight team members, people were suddenly reduced from three-plus walls to two-plus walls. These walls were also lower by a foot or two.

My cubicleNow everyone could see over everyone else’s shoulder. Everyone could hear every phone conversation, every finger typing, every weekend plan bouncing around over their heads.

To make matters even worse for this group, they were right in front of the elevator on one of the floors. And their front wall – what people first saw after debarking those very elevators – had a couple of plastic windows built in, allowing people to peer in on the zoo exhibit they were confronted with.

Needless to say, the group was not happy. The VP argued that it would foster a more collaborative environment (though nobody ever saw her leaving her own office door open when it started to get a bit loud out there). A friend in Finance told me it was a lot cheaper, which I’m sure didn’t hurt in the decision-making either. But in the end, everyone had to get used to it. At least, everyone in that group – nobody else in the company had the audacity to inflict such a torture on their own group.

At this new job, guess what sort of environment I find myself in every day? That’s right. They have that very same fishbowl that those unfortunate souls I used to work with had to endure.

It has not been an easy adjustment for me. It gets loud. Really loud. Any conversation within ten meters of me makes it hard to focus on work. And when more than one is going on I become completely ineffectual. At certain times of the day – mainly 8:30, from 8:55-9:10, and from 1:00-1:15, the noise is unbearable. There is no hope of accomplishing anything in those time periods.

Another Day In Cubicle Paradise

Image via Wikipedia

Now I have broken myself of the computer solitaire habit, instead finding other ways to settle my mind in between tasks and projects. I clear my head by writing, by reading a little news. I don’t spend any time on my phone during the day, saving that for breaks, and though I do eat lunch at my desk, so does everyone else here. But despite all of this, it is still uncomfortable, even if I am working incredibly hard, to know that anybody around me can see what I am doing on the computer.

I am not a “people person”. And that goes far beyond what the normal person might mean when they say that – I really do not like being around people. Sure, interacting with a person here or there can be pleasant, even vital to my own mental well-being. But just being near people stresses me out – it keeps a rather large part of my brain always “on” in the background, worrying about, well, just about anything.

But now I have a big aisle going right through the edge of my “office”, leaving me totally vulnerable to whatever sort of activity is going on around me.

Sure, there seems to be an unspoken protocol not to walk down the aisle if it can be avoided – walking around the aisle between the various other groups sort of cordoned off from the others, but not really. People don’t seem to be looking over shoulders at what others have on their computers. Most folks seem considerate about the noise – usually by putting on their own headphones and blocking everything else out.

And yes, this company is pretty forward about working remotely, even offering in HR policy the right for every employee (in good standing, whose job permits it) to work from home on a regular basis (say, every Wednesday, which is what I intend to do as soon as my 90-day probationary period is over). It certainly helps keep things quiet on Fridays, let me tell you (despite the perk of Pizza Fridays, sponsored by the company President).

And maybe it’s the stage of life that I am in – married with kids, you have no more privacy at all. Even bathroom time is not sacred. And while going to work is in some ways a great escape from that – being able to exercise my brain, talk with adults, and be a part of the bigger picture of the world – it is not the panacea that it once might have been. In the days when professionals had their own office. Of course, those days also saw three-martini lunches, ulcers and wearing ties every day too … none of which I am very fond of, to be frank.

But as Michael, that eminent politician over the wall from me, guffaws at another platitude or bellows another work question to his own boss (sitting safely inside his office), and as another person near me is having a genuine work-conversation quietly (yet so physically close by as to force its content to bounce off my eardrums), it’s all I can do not to scream and sigh nostalgically for those awful, horrendous days, working in the law firm until the wee hours of the morning, stuck between my lonely little pre-fab walls, sweaty and claustrophobic as I pored over boxes of dull documents.

At least it was quiet.

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Comments
6 Responses to “Life In The Fishbowl – Nasty, Brutish and Short”
  1. GailWrites says:

    From one cubey to another, I totally get it when you say being around people always keeps a part of the brain on. When I’m on the phone, I am acutely aware that my cube neighbors can hear every word over those half-walls. It’s hard trying to sound natural and attentive to a customer on the phone, while being conscious of the ears surrounding you. How I miss the days of real offices with real furniture and closed doors.

  2. Doug says:

    I’m not sure the pendulum will swing again, not without another paradigm shift. Companies seem to need to continue to increase their profit margins all the time, and it would be tough for them to justify reversing their cost-cutting measures to an increasingly critical board of directors, stockholders, or what have you.

    Merit increases don’t even cover the rising cost of gas for many of us, physical space is at a premium, and there are fewer and fewer jobs for the working public to fill. None of these issues are insurmountable, though, but someone (the government?) would need to eat the cost to implement policies that would reverse these trends. And in a global economy where the West is losing its share every quarter, and a technological environment that makes more and more folks redundant every year, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where those sorts of changes will play out.

    Ah but don’t mind me – it’s Monday morning pessimism 🙂

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  1. […] wonder how long the pendulum will remain at the other extreme. Merit increases are minimal at best, cubicles are all the rage, and PCs have transformed professionals into glorified secretaries and […]

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