Origins of the Cubicle and Why They May Be Destroying Your Relationships

by Robert Rizzo | Twitter, Facebook,

Image: Buddy wearing headphones

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of my life toiling in a cubicle. That drab, utilitarian landscape adopted by so many corporations. Oddly, what is now disdained as Orwellian furniture, originated in a quest for liberation and equality.

Created in 1968 by Herman Miller furniture designer Robert Propst in an effort to breakdown the social barriers that divide workers, cubicles were a response to what social architects perceived as the divisive class structures created by office walls.

But the furniture system degenerated into gray boxes filled with middle class workers whose performance is measured by butt in chair and time on task. The human equivalent of factory farms filled with chickens in crates destined to
never see daylight. Their popularity was fueled by tax incentives allowing corporations to amortize cubicles in 7 years rather than the unrealistic 39.5 years used for permanent structure fixed wall offices.

Before his death in 2000, Propst condemned his creation as “monolithic insanity.”

Cubicle complaints

Anyone who’s spent time in “cube land” knows how drab and lifeless cubicles can be visually. But what they lack in visual aesthetics they often abound in other sensory stimulus, like sounds and smells.

Most of the common complaints related to cubicle work are sound-related. Things like:

  • Constant click and clatter of keyboards,
  • Incessant phone-ringing,
  • Loud talking,
  • Annoying music, and
  • Mind-numbing buzz of fluorescent lighting.

I spent years surrounded by a group of people that compared breakfasts their first hour each morning, planned their midday meal the hour before lunch, critiqued lunch for an hour after they returned and mapped out dinner the hour before the end of business.

Considering their gastronomic obsessions, I don’t know how they got any work done.

Make the world go away

I dreamed of a world filled with silent bliss.

So for Father’s Day one year, my wife and daughters bought me a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Not the inexpensive ear-bud designs so prevalent today. These were high-end full coverage models.

With the flip of a switch, they silenced even jet engines. So daily office noises were child’s play. I was so lost in my music at times that my co-workers had to tap me on the shoulder to break me from my bliss.

But my quest for quiet caused me to filter out meaningful conversations.

Was that so bad? I just wanted some peace and quiet. Finally, I could focus. My productivity increased and so did my job satisfaction.

But my co-workers perceived my headphones as a barrier. They couldn’t strike up the casual conversation without “interrupting” me.

So rather than wear the headphones constantly, I started to use the headphones during strategic times when I needed a break or time to focus on a project. I found a balance.

Can you hear me

Life is filled with distractions of all kinds. We are often on auditory overload.

So we stop listening. We turn on our noise-cancelling, like invisible headphones, and we stop listening. But when people share something important our filters are still on.

I don’t know how many times I returned from work and found myself ignoring my wife. The filters were still on even though I wasn’t at the office. I had to mentally turn off my noise-cancelling so I could engage with my wife and family.

Are your noise-cancelling filters on all the time? Are they preventing you from hearing what your friends and family are saying? Are they preventing you from giving your self fully?

The next time your friend, or family member is talking to you, ask yourself, “Am I really listening? Am I really hearing them?”

If not, take a minute to turn off your filters. Look at them, make eye contact, hear their words, watch their emotions.

You may be surprised what you are missing and how your relationships improve when you truly listen.

Image: ©  Robert Rizzo


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Robert is the founder of | Mediocrity-Free Living. He is passionate about helping people discover the rewards of daily giving.

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