Tips For Surviving In The ‘Cubicle World’

Working in a cubicle has become a way of life in America. Whether that’s good or bad has become the topic of over 1.9 million articles on Google, the grist for late night comedy shows and a spate of books and cartoons that both praise and ridicule the concept (mostly ridicule)

Date: August 01, 2007

Category: Everything Else

Working in a cubicle has become a way of life in America.

Whether that’s good or bad has become the topic of over 1.9 million articles on Google, the grist for late night comedy shows and a spate of books and cartoons that both praise and ridicule the concept (mostly ridicule).200708-cartoonA

From the cartoon strip Dilbert to the ever-popular The Cubicle Survival Guide: Keeping Your Cool in the Least Hospitable Environment on Earth by James F. Thompson, surviving in the American cubicle has become the stuff of humor, anguish, and lots of advice.

Would you believe that cubicles were originally designed in the 1960s by a professor of fine arts at the University of Colorado, Bob Probst, who was hired by the Herman Miller furniture company in 1964 to research the future of office furniture, according to Joe Schwartz, the company's former marketing head. Probst wanted to create an office space that could be easily modified as companies hired or laid off office workers.

To help everyone who works in this atmosphere make the most of it, NetEffects enewsletter has compiled some common tips from a variety of sources. Good or bad, they are at least interesting, often humorous, and certainly thought provoking. For more detailed survival tips, we recommend Thompson’s book as a light read that will bring lots of smiles to your face, and recognition of some of your own cubicle colleagues. 200708-cartoonB


  • Use discretion with your cubicle decor. Your workspace is your three-D business card. So think twice about those Jenna Jameson video posters and your Satan bobble head. Author Thompson is more direct: how workers decorate, organize and behave in their cubicles is as important as how they dress, socialize and perform their jobs;
  • Keep your voice low on the telephone to protect your privacy;
  • Remember, a cubicle wall is not a real wall. Never gossip in your cubicle, that’s how rumors are created;
  • It is silly to take a personal call at your desk. Use your cell phone in the boss's office or an empty conference room for private calls. Many employees duck in a bathroom or stairwell, but they can be dangerous because you have no idea who might be listening in;
  • Turn your cell phone ring to low or vibrate. Also, consider changing your ring tone to something neutral and businesslike. You don't want Jay-Z asking the whole office to "Show Me What You Got;"200708-cartoonC
  • If your neighbors are consistently noisy let them know you can hear them (in a polite, non-threatening way);
  • Use body language to let doorway hangers-on know that it's time to get back to work;
  • Don't eavesdrop. If you can't help it due to the proximity of your desk, at least don't join in conversations you're not part of;
  • Install pictures of your family, pets, and hobbies to make your cube homey;
    • Use email for private messages;
  • Buy some headphones for yourself or better yet, for your music-loving neighbor;
  • Install a green marker (ribbon) if it's OK to visit, red if you need privacy;
  • Keep a neat cube, particularly if you share it;
  • Move meetings to a conference area or the café;
  • Avoid strong perfumes or clipping your nails;
  • Recognize that the cube is a public space--don't say anything you don't want everyone to know;
  • Speakerphones and headsets that make it easier for workers to broadcast their calls across cubicle dividers are often the reasons why private conversations become public;
  • Place a small mirror on a cubicle wall so that you can see anyone at the entrance of the cube. To do it without being so obvious, put a plant on a shelf right next to your computer. In the plant place a small bicycle rearview mirror, the kind that attaches to a biker's helmet. You’ll have a constant view of anyone behind you;
  • Install wireless video baby monitors to keep an eye on foot traffic near the cubicle;
  • Don’t forget it's their computer. Attacking a boss or company from a corporate email address is like spray-painting your gripes on the wall of your cubicle;
  • Avoid the office lamprey, that person who latches onto unsuspecting colleagues and sucks their patience dry before moving on. To deal with the lamprey: Avoid eye contact, dive under your desk to tie your shoe or adjust computer cables when the lamprey approaches, and never offer food;
  • No one wants to smell your lunch. Thompson says old-school cheeses such as American and string are ok; anything that once lived in the sea is not;
  • Germs, cooties and bacteria thrive in cubicle conditions. Hygiene is a fertile topic for a humorist, and Thompson can't resist devoting space to the gaseous product of human digestion. He distinguishes between accidental and habitual flatulence, and suggests adopting a "don't say, don't smell" policy for the former.


Payton Mays, senior editor at MSN Shopping, came up with a list of helpful hints that might just help when your cubicle starts closing in on you. As he put it, “When assuming a new identity and flying to Buenos Aries is not an option, here are a few tips for coping with your own personal office hell without a pocket flask.”


When your heart, soul and brain are elsewhere, the best strategy is to put yourself on autopilot.
The average office worker switches tasks every three minutes, replying to incoming e-mail, returning a call or opening a new document. Cut through the chaos.
Start by making a list of everything you have to get done. Add a block of whatever time you need to answer e-mails or return calls. Rank your list by priority and dig into number one. Finish each task before going on to the next. Mundane as it sounds, plodding through your day sequentially will speed its passage, help you feel more in control and give you a sense of getting somewhere – even if it’s somewhere you’d rather not be.

Take 5

Each hour, or after completing each task, take a five minute time out. Leave your cubicle and give yourself a brief change of scene before beginning the next chore on your list. Think of it as re-booting your brain. If you’re shackled to your desk, use the five minutes to stretch, visit a favorite web site, play a round of computer solitaire or just close your eyes. (You might want to post an “I’m on a 5-minute break” sign so that the boss won’t think you’re goofing off on company time.)

Raise your force shield

The people who typically annoy you the most can be insufferable at times. Simply put, you don’t need them today. Try to reschedule meetings with them to another time, pleading overload, illness or another more inventive extenuating circumstance. If you can’t weasel out – let’s say you share an office with someone who sets your teeth on edge – slap on a pair of noise-canceling headphones and crank the tunes. Listening to music not only screens out the creep in the next cubicle, it actually lowers your pulse rate.

Skip the java

As someone who drinks his weight in coffee every day, I realize this is easier said than done, but the plain truth is that while caffeine may make you feel more alert, it also increases your heart rate and your level of stress. Take a decaf break for a day – drink lots of water, munch on an energy bar or fresh fruit and don’t forget your vitamins. Some swear by chamomile tea.

Work out the kinks

Daily exercise is a proven stress-reducer. But even if you fall somewhere short of the mark in that department, use what break time you have to limber up a bit. Get outside your building and take a walk. Do some stretching exercises. Lift your shoulders as high as you can, hold the position for a couple of seconds and release. Do that 10 times and you’ll feel the tension evaporate from your shoulders and neck. Sustained movement releases endorphins that help stimulate a sense of well being.

Improve your set design

Dilbert cartoons and rubber chickens aside, the way you furnish your little corner of the corporate universe can help you relax and endure even the most idiotic office memo. According to one study, placing a plant or two on your desk where you can see them can lower stress and improve productivity. No window? Go for artificial greenery. Photographs of your family or of a happy moment in your life, or even a souvenir from a great vacation, can similarly provide psychological refuge.

Take a virtual vacation

Keep a folder in your desk filled with travel brochures of places you’d love to go or photos of where you’ve been. When things come to a boil, take it out and imagine yourself there. Close your eyes and think of all the sounds and smells of that place. If it doesn’t calm you down, it will at least remind you of why you’re sacrificing your 9-5. Or, look out a window for a few minutes and just watch the motion of the clouds or the sunlight through the leaves of a tree.


When we’re under stress, we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths -- if we remember to breathe at all. You can reverse the effect by going for slow, long and deep breathing. It oxygenates the blood, relaxes the mind and, at least if you don’t work in L.A., it’s great for your lungs and body. For some reason, the scent of lavender oil has a calming effect. Keep a bottle handy (of the oil, that is). 

 Make a survival kit

Facing eight hours of angst in the trenches is a lot easier if you’re prepared. Here’s a shopping list for some of the things to help you keep your sanity in the cube: Noise-canceling headphones, nutrition bars and drinks, vitamins, Chamomile tea, live plants, artificial plants, lavender oil, and books about relieving office stress.

A final bit of good advice: know your company policies.

Believe it or not, most companies spell out their policies right in the company handbook. It might not be the most interesting reading, but knowing your company rules backward and forward makes good sense. This isn't a bulletproof shield, because companies have been known to break their own policies, but you're always better off knowing what you can and can't do at work.

As one writer summed up surviving in the cubicle world:

“We all have days at work when the clock seems to run backwards and the inbox metastasizes. They’re no easier to avoid than long lines at the DMV. Accept the fact that some days you’re just not going to operate at 100 percent. Take a lesson from the members of Congress and never let a lousy attitude or lackluster performance get in your way of your career. Just concentrate on making it through to 5 o’clock, get a good night’s sleep and chances are you’ll be back at the top of your game tomorrow.”

The author of Dilbert, Scott Adams, had this advice:

Question: If Dilbert could give one piece of advice on how to make the workplace better, what would it be?
Answer: Hammocks in cubicles, since there is a lot of downtime.

Good luck to all. Remember, survival of the fittest!

Some Other Resources

Top 10 People's Thoughts on Cubicle Life

Cartoon copyrighted by Mark Parisi, printed with permission.