Great Leaders Should Move to a Cubicle
Congratulations! You’ve arrived. You’ve earned that nice cushy office where you can shut the door and no one can hear you listening to the greatest American Idol video ever on YouTube (or looking for a video card to send your mom on Mother’s Day – use this one next year).
Yep. The office is fantastic. But if you want to demonstrate some real leadership, toss your junk into a box and move into Downtown Cubeville.
Before I explain why I encourage you to head out into the ant farm, let’s acknowledge why cubicles are one of the most horrific inventions ever:
– You have NO privacy
– You can hear *everything* everyone around you says
– You can smell every roadkill opossum Lean Cuisine entree your neighbor heats up in the microwave
– You can be subjected to the scorching hellfire of your cube-mate’s space heater or the gale force winds of their oscillating fan
– The lovely industrial gray or taupe of the cube walls makes you want to scream
All that said, sometimes getting back to the cube is a good thing if you’re the boss. There are two major benefits from doing so. You’ll just have to trust me on these and give them a try sometime.
You Tell Your Team They’re Your Equal
I had a great boss named Terry. When I was negotiating my job offer, I asked him if I’d be sitting in an office or a cube. This was a top-of-mind question as I’m easily distracted and have a hard time focusing while in a cube.
He said “You’ll definitely be in an office.”
My first day arrived. His assistant met me in the lobby and she showed me to my brand spankin’ new office. It was awesome. Plenty of space to sprawl my crap out everywhere.
After unpacking for about an hour, I asked where Terry was. I needed to ask him some questions. His assistant guided me down Cubicle Lane. She stopped halfway down, pointed, and said “He sits here.” I was confused. My boss sat in a cube?
Terry arrived a minute later and I asked “Why do you sit in a cube? I thought you’d be in an office.”
“I was. It’s your office now. I promised you’d have one and another open one won’t be ready for a few months until we reorganize the floor plan. I promised you’d have an office. Is that okay?”
“Um, yeah.” My head spun. How awesome was my new boss that he moved his stuff out of HIS office so I could have it like he promised before I accepted the job? His actions spoke volumes (and I finally really understood how my soldiers felt that time I was turning a wrench under the tank).
Terry demonstrated that it’s an equal playing field. With a simple, temporary move, he showed his people came first. He could have made me wait the 6 months until the floor was reorganized or he could take on the inconvenience himself. Doing the latter instantly cemented my loyalty for him.
You Learn A LOT by Being in a Cube
Remember the part above about no privacy and hearing everything? Guess what? Sometimes that’s a good thing.
If you’re in a cube (even temporarily) your people are more likely to pop in, ask questions, chit chat, and generally keep you in the loop. When you’re in an office, the chances of them strolling in and chatting go down exponentially.
It’s not about you – it’s the dynamic of the open spaces of a cube. When they walk by and ask questions, you have more opportunities to influence decisions, understand them as people, and generally be better informed.
When you hear the frustration mounting in adjacent cubes when projects are going off track, you’re able to intervene and help sooner. If you’re in an office, you’re just as likely to be surprised by the project going off track because you didn’t have the benefit of that early warning complaining you’ll hear in a cube.
Sure, cubicles are awful but they’re here to stay. Maybe as a leader you can go for a spin in one (even if it’s just for a couple of months to create a “project team cube” where everyone works). It can endear you to your team and get you back in the core flow of information.
And for those of you who think it’s easy for me because I work from the home office, you’ve never heard a boxer, a Jack Russell, and a poodle/schnauzer fight all day while you’re on a conference call…
In genreal, I agree with the philosophy behind your post: the leader should deal with the same pain as the lead. However, a leader often has a greater need for privacy: counseling, sales calls, etc. Often, a very loud leader on the phone at ll times will be such a distraction to the team that they wouldn't want him in the same zone. And yet a leader should be responsive.
I'd be interested in your thoughts on the the effect of new technologies on leadership. We use IRC (chat) a lot at work, and it causes an interesting dynamic.
The other good reason is that being in an office results in more and more things becoming "private". The door gets closed more and more and the staff trust goes down every time that happens. Sure there are times you need a private space but the same is true for your employees.
Paul McConaughy (@minutrition)
About a year and a half ago we had a special project that lasted four months. It took us off normal duties and had us move to a new area in the building with low wall cubicles. It was awkward at first but ended up being great – for the project – because of how it opened communication.
That said, I do agree with the other comments about the need for privacy managers require quite often. A good manager can get around some of the perils of the office by making sure he or she regularly walks the floor and stops in to see people.
I'm a manager in a cube – and it's not a bad thing. It does help with reaching out to staff and others in the organization. When it comes to privacy, I just book one of the conference rooms for an hour at a time and get the work done that way. All of our conference rooms have the same or better technology that is at my desk.
If you have an ego – then managing out of a cube is not going to work for you!
“If you have an ego – then managing out of a cube is not going to work for you!”
Isn’t that part of the point? It’s not just to say to the employees that the manager isn’t “better” than them, it’s also to remind the manager of it! We’re all people working together towards the same end.
I had the chance to visit a company where everyone, except HR people, had a desk on the main floor with desks arranged in team clusters. The impact was amazing.
As Dilbert has made quite clear, the cube farm is appalling. Whatever escapee from an asylum came up with this “open concept” (gimmee a break) should be subjected to 100 years hard labour in – choose a preferred asylum. Here’s a piece I wrote awhile ago on non-toxic / creative office workplaces…..
PS Today’s “offices” are no better – at 3m x 3m they are corks in the intellectual bottle and the best barriers to communication that one could imagine.