Thinking outside the cubicle

Workspaces have evolved since the invention
of the gray walls

 

Photo by Paul Moore.

Mike Bathum, owner of Artigiano Design, poses next to banners he designed on the second floor of the Ohio Street Workstudios building in Bellingham.

 

The cubicle turns 40 this year, and it’s doubtful that anybody would really mind if the big, gray box had a mid-life crisis. It could probably use a little sprucing up anyway — and we don’t just mean a thumb-tacked picture or two of Mount Baker.

Originally called the “Action Office,” partitioned-off offices have since become smaller and, most would argue, less user-friendly to the point that the term “cube farm” is now a part of modern vernacular.

To honor the invention that has compartmentalized countless lives, the BBJ took a step back to look at a few work environments around town, from big to small, that defy the stereotypical Dilbert-style office and see what people like about them.

 

The work pod

Perhaps in homage to a certain Pacific Northwest aquatic icon, the staff of 430 people at the T-Mobile call center are arranged in pods rather than the typical line of cubicles.

Each work unit contains 17 employees, with 15 seated around the perimeter and two located in the middle of the pod.

Working in pods may be nice, but general manager Kelly Whiteside knows every once in a while, you just need to get out. And when employees need a break from the phones, the company makes sure they have a way to get away from it all.

“Depending on what helps you relax, we’ve pretty much got it for everybody,” Whiteside said.

The company offers several types of break rooms, from a cyber cafe where employees can check their personal e-mail to a quiet room where no personal technology is allowed.

T-Mobile also has massage chairs, an onsite gym for midday workouts and a relaxation room for mothers.

“It’s a tough job so we want them to be able to truly unplug,” Whiteside said. “And our employees really appreciate these amenities.”

 

A collection of studios

When artist Mike Bathum came to Bellingham 10 years ago, he knew he needed to find a studio.

His previous house in Enumclaw had an attached studio, which was convenient, but he didn’t like it very much. It was too private — it separated him from the rest of the world. And now his condo in Bellingham was too small for him to set up a workspace.

“I’m not an artist who needs a lot of space,” he said. “But I’m also not the kind of artist who likes to be alone. I need people around me and the energy they provide.”

He soon found what he needed: a 200-square-foot space in the Ohio Street Workstudios.

There he is surrounded by 25 other tenants, from sole proprietors to artists like himself, Each with their own workspace and sharing a conference room and a lounge area. The studios are situated on either side of a large atrium that spans the length of the building and is decorated with Bathum’s photos and paintings.

Bathum’s studio has four large windows, two that face the outdoor world and two that face the atrium “so I can see people go by.”

“I can see everything in here and I always keep the door open,” he said, adding that other tenants often stop in for a chat.

The Workstudios were designed to have a social and professional atmosphere for small businesses looking to move up from a home office or artists looking to get out of their garage, said Debbie Turk, who manages the space for Blossom Management.

“It’s meant to be an incubator space,” Turk said.

The warmth of the work environment in the airy Workstudios is in high demand, too. Turk said she has never had a problem leasing the studios and there is actually a waiting list to get in, should one of the current tenants leave.

But who would want to leave?

“I’ve been here since they opened,” said John Mortensen, owner of Thinkatron, a video production and Web media company. “They were still finishing some of the units when I came in.”

At the time, there weren’t many spaces available for a one-man business, said Mortensen, who now has one of the larger studios with a loft.

The space allows Mortensen to keep two work stations and store all his video equipment in such a way that it is easy to get to when he needs it. And more importantly, it’s not at home — it’s a place to work.

“I’ve got a couple of kids at home and there are a lot distractions there,” he said, adding that he sometimes brings work home but prefers the Workstudios. “I’d love to see more of this type of space around town.”

 

Laughing the walls down

With their towering gray walls, cubicles can sometimes be a hindrance to communication, and Henry Beeland of Evergreen Team Concepts is out to change that. Not by getting rid of cubicles, but rather by improving communication around the office and encouraging more fun and laughter.

“The No. 1 thing lacking in the workplace, and in the world, is positive communication,” Beeland said. “Laughter helps us create that positive communication.”

To that end, Beeland has found a way to help other businesses achieve more levity. Last month, Beeland launched a new subsidiary company, Have As Much Fun & Laughter As Possible (HAMFLAP). The business offers workshops and consulting on ways to bring fun and laughter, and thus better communication, into the company culture.

When employees can laugh at work, they feel more engaged in their work environment, Beeland said. This leads to better communication among the staff, less conflict and greater employee retention.

“And not only do people feel more engaged, they become more productive,” Beeland said. “You have so much energy after you laugh.”

Using humor and fun as a management strategy has been slowly working its way into the American work culture in recent years and shows a shift in the way Americans perceive work. The environment that Beeland grew up in was much different, he said.

“I grew up thinking you weren’t supposed to have fun in the workplace. You were supposed to have your nose to the grindstone,” Beeland said. “Then Generation X came along and said, ‘we want to have fun at work.’ And Generation Y is demanding it — ‘we want to have good relationships at work.’”

For Generation Y, work is not just a place to pick up a paycheck, Beeland said. It’s an outlet of their social life and should be a place they enjoy coming to everyday.

“There has been much more emphasis in the last few years on making the workplace more creative and fun,” Beeland said. “And the more creative you are, the more fun you’re having.”

 

Future of the cubicle?

Even though the business community — and society as a whole — has recognized some of the shortfalls of the boxed-up work environment, the cubicle still remains one of the most functional systems for organizing a workspace.

“We still sell a lot of the original cubicles,” said Randy Grunhurd, co-owner of Blackburn Office Equipment. “These days, there are a thousand different varieties, though.”

Modern office systems, as they’re called, are slowly moving away from the traditional six-foot-tall gray wall, however. Most office systems are shorter now so people can easily communicate around the office but still have a private area in which to work.

Office systems are even going green, too, Grunhurd said. There are several options on the market for cubicle panels made from sustainably harvested wood and organic fabric.

Also, as the workforce is spending increasingly more time in an office, businesses are becoming more aware of the comfort of their workspace and the comfort of their chairs.

“Most office workers spend six to seven hours in a chair and if you don’t have a nice chair it can be brutal,” Grunhurd said.

Designing a more efficient and more comfortable workspace will always be a challenge, and that is why the old, functional cubicle will continue to be the standard.

“It’s a very specialized environment,” he said. “It has transformed in the last five to 10 years and it will continue to evolve, but it won’t go away. You always have to have an office.”

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