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Cube-i-tizing of our offices, but for how long?

As I See It

Hands down, “Dilbert” is my favorite comic strip. In fact, I go into a mild depression if I don’t get my daily dose of Dilbert, Catbert and the Pointy-Headed Boss.

I was reminded of Dilbert recently by an article in The Wall Street Journal describing the trials and tribulations of people working in open-office cubicles rather than private offices.

Putting workers in cubicles is a trend of the so-called New Economy. The theory is that exposing workers to each other will encourage exchange of ideas, build teamwork and save money. At least one of the goals — saving money — does occur when workers are relocated from private offices with walls to cubicles with partitions.

However, opinions vary on whether “cubing” workers accomplishes the other goals of idea exchange and teamwork building. For instance, some “cubers” say that conference calls among folks in surrounding cubes produces distractions in stereo. First you hear the words spoken into the phone and then you hear them again coming out of a neighbor’s speaker phone.

The risk, some say, is that we get to know our “cube mates” too well. Incessant phone-ringing, very personal conversations, chitchat about weekend exploits and poor-taste jokes all become part of the mix.

While it is possible, perhaps even likely, that open-office arrangements do cause increased idea exchange and familiarity, it definitely raises the irritation level of many of those involved. To combat concerns about lower concentration, many office managers are putting obstacles in the way of offending noises. Attempts to arrest the racket include padding cubicle panels with extra fabric, hanging decorative, sound-absorbing bunting from ceilings and putting cork wallboards in conference rooms and hallways.

Another approach to insulate workers from open-office noise is using higher cubicles. Sales of Steelcase Inc.’s floor-to-ceiling partitions have increased 80% over the past three years. Another partition supplier, Herman Miller Inc., has seen sales of its standard 46-inch cubicle drop by 19% since 1996, while sales of its 62-inch panel has jumped 18%. In essence, these higher cubicle walls place the occupant back in a private office, but at a substantially reduced cost.

Still another creative solution to the noise problem is installing noise machines that make a low-level whooshing sound similar to an air conditioner. Though this innovation has met with much success, some workers fear that management might use it as a tool to subliminally brain wash employees by mixing company propaganda messages in with the whooshing. On the positive side, some employees have wondered if they might be whooshed with subliminal messages that might help them stop smoking.

Almost invariably, trends will be assailed with vigor and the new product or technique used in inappropriate circumstances. Such seems to have happened with open-space offices. For those like me who have trouble staying focused even in a private office, I doubt that open-officing is going to be beneficial. From my own experience, clusters of employees results in lots of useless, often counter-productive, chatter which neither promotes teamwork nor the sharing of professional ideas.

As with so many trends that begin in California and drift eastward, I think this one will fizzle out over time. However, the cost savings from substituting floor-to-ceiling partitions for permanent walls, as opposed to open offices, is probably an idea that will stand the test of time.

A few thoughts about local nonprofits…

The terrorist attack on September 11th has brought out the best in our country. Americans are contributing millions upon millions of dollars to charities targeting relief for those directly affected by the devastation in New York and Washington D.C. While this is commendable, we should not do so at the expense of our local nonprofits.

Many area charities, including the Mississippi Animal Rescue League, with which I am closely affiliated, have seen dramatic reductions in donations. Local charities, though not impacted by the terrorist attacks, fulfill a vital role in our society and need your support.

When planning your donations, don’t forget to feed the dogs out at the Rescue League in Jackson.

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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