Your Working Life in a Cube: Making the Best of a Difficult Environment

Many federal employees work in an office “cube” environment. Here are tips on how to get along with your “cube mates.”

I mentioned in my recent article on Office Etiquette that I would be doing a second part, with a focus on the cubicle environment, and the even greater exposure of open space offices. (Office Etiquette: Tread Lightly Lest Thy Co-workers Smite Thee)

I will readily admit to having a strong preference for a private office and that I have been extremely fortunate in terms of office space. The confidential nature of the Human Resources (HR) work I have done throughout most of my career, and the positions I held with Federal agencies, most often resulted in me being assigned a private office, with a door that could be closed.

From my current and previous experience, it is obvious that most Federal employees do not have that “luxury.” I most often see cubicle environments, where the offices of most employees are divided by partitions. The partitions are often tall enough to give the impression of privacy, but I think that is largely an illusion. While my memory grows increasingly dim, and it has been more than 25 years since I worked for the General Services Administration, I seem to recall that when I visited the Internal Revenue Service office in Ogden, Utah, there were endless rows of desks with no partitions to separate them. My initial thought was that the nine circles of hell described in Dante’s Inferno might have been one short.

I recognize that economics play a major role in determining the internal architecture of Federal offices, and, clearly, private offices are more expensive than either cubicles or open space. Given that fact, and the current and projected tight-budget environment in Federal agencies, I think we will be seeing fewer private offices and even more cubicles and open space offices. Because people in cubicles or an open space environment are far more vulnerable to the actions of others than are employees in private offices, I think it is worth looking at some tips for being good “cube” neighbors. The ones below are courtesy of

  • Don’t enter another person’s cubicle unless you are invited.

My comment: I think this is excellent advice. I’ve found that employees seldom enter someone’s private office without an invitation, particularly if the door is closed, but somehow cubicles appear to be more informal. A phone call is probably the safest bet, but I often forget and wind up at the entrance to someone’s cube, at which point I “knock” on the plastic piece at the end of the partition. Sure it’s lame, but at least it’s an effort to be polite.

  • Don’t interrupt someone who is on the phone by using sign language or any other means of communication.

My comment: I was never able to learn sign language – somewhere between my brain and my fingers, things got lost in translation. Nonetheless, I have definitely used some kinds of hand signals to interrupt people who were on the phone; I can see where my indecipherable gestures might distract an employee who is trying to complete a phone conversation.

  • Think twice before interrupting someone who appears deep in thought.

My comment: It is often difficult for visitors to my office to differentiate between deep thought and sleep, aside from the snoring, but for most people I think this is good advice.

  • Remember that speakerphones and cubicles don’t mix.
  • Don’t make or receive personal telephone calls during the workday.

My comment: I’ll lump these two tips together under the general heading of “phone etiquette,” which I see as a critical component in getting along with co-workers in these environments. I generally speak at a low volume in person, but I have been advised by family members that when I get on the phone my volume often escalates, however inadvertently. Talking loudly when you and your neighbors are in cubicles or open space will likely not endear you to them, so it is worth focusing some attention on this issue. If you’re not sure how your phone calls are coming across to others, consider asking them.

If there is an employee out there who doesn’t make personal phone calls, I have yet to encounter him/her. Federal employees are like workers in other sectors of the economy, with children at home, perhaps elders to check on, and doctor’s appointments that can only be made during business hours, but I think keeping such calls to a minimum is a worthy objective. And from informally surveying people in my office, I think that the more “personal” the phone call, the better your chances of annoying co-workers. One other worthwhile tip is to answer your phone as quickly as possible, e.g., by the second or third ring, if not sooner.

  • Don’t play music at your desk during business hours. If you have to, use a headset.

My comment: I’m pretty sure I could not get through a single work day, or even an hour, without my radio, which has become even more important since the agency cruelly denied my request for a large, flat-screen television. I don’t think it is necessary to give up music or other kinds of radio programming just because you are in a cubicle or in open space. However, I do believe such settings call for discretion, so a headset is a good idea, particularly if you can’t otherwise keep the volume low enough not to be heard by your office mates.

  • Don’t discuss a confidential matter in a cubicle setting.

My comment: This applies to in-person conversations and to phone calls. If you do discuss a confidential issue in a cubicle setting, you can expect that others will overhear the discussion, even if they were not trying to do so, which means that it could come back to bite you. It is a pain to have to find a private office or conference room each time such a conversation is required, or to locate a place where you can use your cell phone or BlackBerry without being overheard, but it is arguably better than the alternative.

I had one other thought about communicating in a cube setting, again based on my own foibles. In this case, I was speaking to an employee in his cubicle. Immediately after I had left his cube, I thought of something I had forgotten to mention. So, I mentioned it – while I was walking back to my office. Not only did he get a chance to hear my remark; so did everyone in a cubicle between my office and his. The matter in this case was not confidential, but I’d bet that not all of the folks who overheard the “long-distance” conversation I initiated were thrilled to have done so.

  • Bear in mind that your cubicle is a direct reflection of you. Keep it neat and orderly.

My comment: My office is, indeed, a reflection of me, which is not a good thing in my case. I don’t have an organized bone in my body, and my office reflects that unfortunate fact, but at least I have enough room to spread out. Cubicles and open space areas typically have less square footage than private offices, so people who occupy those spaces have to be particularly neat and tidy.

  • Avoid strong perfume.

My comment: I would label this one “using common sense with scents.” I mentioned in the earlier article the advisability of avoiding strong scents in colognes, perfumes, etc., in any office setting. It is even more important when employees are in tight quarters such as cubicles or open space. Several readers informed me in response to the first article that annoyance isn’t the only potential problem with overpowering scents; they pointed out that some employees are allergic to them, meaning that a scent-wearing employee could inadvertently trigger a co-worker’s asthma attack.  And other bodily odors take on added significance in cubicle or open space environments.

  • If you are having your lunch at your desk, make sure you’re not disruptive to others.

My comment: Such disruptions could come in a variety of forms, from having visitors join you in your cubicle for lunch and engage in loud conversations to consuming food with strong odors.

  • Keep your germs to yourself.

My comment: This is easier said than done but germs are undoubtedly easier to spread in a cubicle or open space environment than between private offices. Not only that, but your co-workers may have the joy of listening to you sneeze, hack, and blow your nose repeatedly. If you must come in when you’re sick, try to limit your physical contact with co-workers.

  • Don’t borrow items from other mates in the office without letting them know.

My comment: This one hit uncomfortably close to home. I am always breaking staplers, for reasons beyond my comprehension. But when I suddenly destroyed yet another one and had to staple a document right then, I borrowed one from a momentarily unstaffed cubicle and then forgot to put it back. Not a good way to win friends and influence people.

  • Respect the privacy of those around you. Don’t read other workmates’ memos, notes or faxes.
  • Avoid sharing office gossip.
  • Mind your own business.

My comment: I see these three hints as being closely related. Given the fact that many of us have a “curiosity gene,” it is not always easy to mind our own business, which would include not reading documents belonging to or meant for others. And if it weren’t for gossip, probably half of the magazines currently published would perish. However, office gossip can have an adverse effect on team unity, and respecting the right to privacy of co-workers is extremely important in building and maintaining trust.

Conclusion: The “cube etiquette” hints noted in this article are by no means intended to be all-inclusive. It is likely that they just scratched the surface of cubicle and open space etiquette. I think that being a good co-worker in these environments largely boils down to using common sense and being sensitive to behaviors on your part which could create problems for co-workers.

Of course, identifying offensive behavior and getting it corrected are two different things.  Often, the offended co-worker is reluctant to “confront” the offending employee. But while bringing such a problem to an employee’s attention can be a daunting task, not doing so may lead to “passive-aggressive” behavior, and could easily divide the office into “factions.” It is important that any discussions of annoying behavior take place in a private setting and in a civil manner, without rancor. If the problem persists, or if the offended employee just can’t talk to the involved co-worker about it, bringing the matter to the attention of the first-line supervisor is probably the best avenue for seeking corrective action.

If readers have other hints for establishing and maintaining appropriate “cube etiquette,” I would be glad to see them, as well as successful (and even unsuccessful) approaches employees have taken to resolve problems related to annoying behavior. If I receive a sufficient number of additional ideas, I will develop a third article on this subject.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.