Cramped Cubicle

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about cubicles:

My department was recently moved to a new cubicle row that hadn’t been utilized much prior. The reason it wasn’t used before is because there’s not enough space in the aisle. I sit in the middle and even with asking people to squeeze in to their desks, I still have to squeeze through to leave the row and they want to fill the remaining empty desks. I’m fairly thin and I have difficulty. I don’t even know how our larger people manage. Upper management basically says live with it and maybe in the next year or so we’ll move to a different office. I feel that not only is this awful for morale but it seems like a safety hazard to have not even a one foot wide path for employees to get to their desks when people are seated.

Signed Squeezed

Dear Squeezed:

You are right to voice your concern about where you are assigned to work and apparently have expressed that. I understand that you will are not satisfied with upper management’s “live with it and maybe in the next year or so” solution to being crowded and squeezed. So what do you and your coworkers do now? Perhaps some of what I suggest will enable you to participate in finding a solution.

  1. See the big picture. Management wants to have a profitable operation. The less space required for an operation the more profit. To acquire more space takes capital. Failure to think like management creates an them vs us Therefore don’t fail to talk business success when you and your coworkers express your displeasure with being squeezed.
  2. Employ language that management understands. Location, location, location is a well-accepted premise of business success. Your task is to help management understand that where and how they assign employees also is linked their business’ success. Would that those who decide where to locate a new place of business could also understand that “good location” means happy productive workers and squeezed location of workers means unhappy unproductive workers.
  3. Management appreciates numbers. The bigger the number of employees voicing displeasure the more respect and attention will be given to a solution.
  4. Management wants to get something accomplished fast and also knows that repetition works with advertising. Therefore, voicing attention is most effective when done soon and repeated soon. Hearing something that irritates again and again, like a cracked record, demands action. Repetition of something that pleases generates more of that something. When was a young child, the neighbors gave me cookies. They nicknamed me “More Some” because those two words is what I most often said. So find words that will echo what you want.
  5. Management pays attention to its competition. So tell ‘em what the other guys are doing. I have seen attractively designed rooms with cubicles. Cubicles were not crowed, separated by padded sound absorbing soft-colored fabric. Green plants were scattered about. Art was changed every few months. Talk about and p of places like that should impress management with what can make happy employees.
  6. Management likes teamwork. Seeing a committee representing your cubicle-workers propose what they want should impress management.
  7. Management has both eyes and ears. Therefore use visual (written, photo, maps) and oral channels to demonstrate your concerns. Also remember that we think in picture-words, that’s what metaphors do. For example: We’re packed in like sardines or we are squeezed so closely that if we scratch an itch we might be scratching a coworker.
  8. Management respects gratitude. In what ways have your coworkers and how often have you counted your blessings—for having jobs, for the success of the organization, for supervisors who are efficient and considerate.

Now can you huddle with several of your coworkers and suppose that you are a blue-ribbon committee charged with coming up with a proposal or alternate proposals on what would be effective and satisfying for your operations? Can you word proposal in keeping with the above eight management premises? If so I predict you will have a lot of fun coming up with language that appeals to and is respected by management.

Management sometimes makes unwise and uncomfortable decisions about use of space. Some airlines have shortened the distance between seats. Some have gigantic underground rooms for employees with dozens and dozens of desks, each where an employee is expected to respond to calls and make reservations for vacations, such as at Disneyland. We have gotten questions from employees annoyed by coworkers speaking loudly, gum cracking, coughing, eating smelly foods, and invading their space and wasting their time. Lower level employees are too often expected “to live with” what upper management will not. It ain’t right! But too often those below will be cramped has been the way it is and will continue unless and until management can be made aware of how it feels to be squeezed.

The very fact that you have taken the time to submit and question describing what is not good for you and your workplace prompts me to predict that you and your coworkers will make yourselves heard. I look forward to learning what you do and how it works. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. For you that means having good work space.


Additional response from Workplace Doctor, Tina Rowe:

It may be that you will not be able to convince upper management to make a change in your cubicle arrangements, but maybe if you try a few paths to that goal, one of them will work. Here are some ideas:

  1. Check to see if most employees agree with you about the space. If some of them tell you they don’t mind or they think it’s adequate, you will have a hard time convincing higher levels to make a change. It helps if people are agreement about a work situation.
  1. You didn’t mention the reason your department was moved to the new cubicle row. Ask yourself why your group was moved and why your group was singled out to be given the worst work area. Perhaps there is some aspect of the move that could change and result in your group being moved again. If so, perhaps your group can hurry that change.

    Also consider options for where you might be moved, if a change was made. Are there options? If no change is possible, even if managers wanted to do it, perhaps that would have an effect on the attitudes of group members. (They might be more accepting or they might decide to find other work.)

  1. Some managers don’t care very much about employee morale, they are only concerned with productivity. It isn’t a good idea to lower productivity just to make a point, but if some aspect of your work is hindered because of the cramped quarters, keep a record or a few notes, to prove your allegation that the effectiveness of employees is suffering. This would vary according to the nature of your work, but might be the one thing that could get through to a higher level manager.
  1. Work through your most direct supervisor or manager when possible, because that person is much more likely to be sympathetic and to be able to present your views to those higher up in the company. If he or she is not supportive, it is highly unlikely you will get any changes made. However, if he or she is a good representative for your group, higher management levels may be persuaded to find another place for you to work.
  1. I don’t think the safety argument will make a big difference, because it would be very difficult to prove adverse effects. However, I think it would be a good idea to take photos of the situation, to point out how unlikely it would be that anyone could get out quickly in case of an emergency. Photos would also be useful as general evidence of the poor conditions.
  1. If your organization has an effective Human Resources component, consult with them about this matter. Sometimes HR will have a list of “best practices” as it relates to work spaces or working conditions.

In the United States, there are no government regulations about the size of work spaces, but in Canada there are guidelines.  Those guidelines might be useful when discussing alternate workspaces with HR or with your immediate managers.

The bottom line is that a change in your department’s work location will have to be directed by company management and they may not be persuaded to do it. However, before you give up, try a few different approaches. If you are not successful, each of you will need to decide whether or not you want to continue working for that company.

Best wishes to you as you attempt to have a better workplace and workspace. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.