How to Cope With Life Inside a Small Cubicle

A young woman sitting in her office cubicle with other cubicles in the background.
Musketeer/Digital Vision/Getty Images

A cubicle is a semi-private workspace with walls—usually not extending to the ceiling—a desk or other work surface, and usually bins, shelves, or drawers. Pieces of modular furniture are connected like building blocks to meet an organization's ​office space needs. Cubicles give businesses and government organizations the ability to add, remove, and reconfigure office space relatively quickly.

Compared to hard-walled offices, cubicles also allow for an organization to have a smaller physical footprint thus reducing the cost of owned or leased space. Many organizations have a mix of hard-walled offices and cubicles. The more authority an employee has in an organization, the more likely the person has a hard-walled office.

Positive Aspects

Working in a cubicle environment has several benefits. You have your own space. It may not be much, but your little piece of the office is yours. You can decorate it however you want (within reason, of course). If people want to find you, they know the first place to look.

You are able to meet other people. If you're the new kid on the block, you'll have people constantly walking by your desk. The chattier ones will introduce themselves and others to you. You can also wander around to meet people.

Closeness allows for quick collaboration and problem-solving. Say you're working on a project with another person or a few people. You can walk a few paces, discuss what you need to and be back at your desk in moments.

Negative Aspects

Working in a cubicle will also come with its challenges. Noise and closed in spaces can make it hard to concentrate. With phones ringing and people talking, concentrating at your cubicle can be challenging. You will have little or no privacy in a cubicle space. You have no door and little to block sound emanating from your workspace.

Your working space will be limited. All your personal equipment, supplies, and belongings have to fit in an area less than 50 square feet. You may feel a little boxed in at times.

Depending on the height of the walls, you may lack natural light. Unless you have a cubicle adjacent to a window, you're unlikely to get much natural light while you're sitting at your desk.

Faux Pas in Cubicle Land

People can be downright oblivious that they aren't the only ones in the office. Don't be the guy who doesn't know how to act in a cubicle environment. Be considerate when using a speakerphone. Sure your conference call is important, but the whole floor doesn't need to hear it. Even if you plan to be on the call for hours, never use your speakerphone during business hours. If you plan on making and receiving an inordinate amount of calls, ask your employer to provide a telephone headset.

Avoid talking too loudly. Other people are trying to concentrate on work, so please use your inside voice. After a while, even nosy people will get tired of hearing your conversations. Don't have loud personal conversations. No one wants to hear about your latest mole biopsy or gynecological appointment.

This is good advice for any office setting. Don't sneak up behind people. Few things are more unnerving than turning slightly and seeing someone standing right behind you. Announce your entry into someone else's workspace. Find a hard surface like the connector pieces of the wall to knock on.

No matter how delicious you may find your reheated grilled fish, most people don't want to smell fish when they're not eating it. Microwave popcorn—which has a knack to burn easily—can also be offensive. Even if you're eating something that will make people's mouths water, you don't want them to feel bad about their lunch of PB&Js.

Keep your personal hygiene routine for at home. Clipping your fingernails or flossing your teeth can be a multi-sensory barrage. No one wants to experience that. Poor cubicle etiquette also includes brushing your hair or spraying perfumes or cologne.

Tools for Surviving Cubicle-Life

Your employer will provide all the standard office supplies you need to get the job done, but there are a few you'll need to maintain your sanity in the cubicle environment. These small items will make it easier to do your job and will give you a sense of comfort in your non-private office space.

Headphones are an absolute essential for working in a cubicle. Headphones can enable you to listen to audio from your computer without disturbing others. They're also handy when you have a noisy neighbor. You can plug your headphones into your computer or MP3 player to acquire a more favorable soundtrack to your day. If you're really sensitive to noise, you may want to invest in some noise-canceling headphones.

Many buildings prohibit the use of space heaters and desk fans, but people break the rules for the sake of comfort. If your building manager can't seem to keep the thermostat at a reasonable temperature, a space heater with a fan setting will help you whether the indoor temperature is too hot or too cold. If you get cold often or are not allowed to use space heaters, consider keeping a sweater, shawl, or blanket at work.

Remember, you have a life after 5:00 p.m. but while you are at work you can make yourself feel comfortable too. A few nice family photos can help. Seeing your family can give you an energy boost to tackle the day's challenges. And most people are interested. Don't go nuts, though. Two or three framed photos will suffice. Also, a small mirror strategically placed helps you spot people coming into your workspace before they startle you.