Cubicles are the Phone Booths of the Future

Note: This post won the Grand Prize in the Elance “New Way to Work” contest.

I’ve hated almost every job I’ve ever had.

OK, “hate” is too strong of a word.

Let me put it this way: I have often felt deep frustrations and resentments toward every job I’ve ever had.

I haven’t hated the work itself or the people that I’ve worked with, or even the organizations that I’ve worked for. I’ve done really good work and had some great times with some really great people.

But what I’ve hated are the limitations and confinements and pointless restrictions of the “job” itself.

I don’t like having to work “standard hours.” I don’t like having to show up at 9 a.m. (or earlier) and work the same amount of time every day. I don’t like never getting to see daylight (my office has no windows). I don’t like the enforced idleness – I hate those days where even if there’s not enough work to do, you still have to sit there for three more hours, just to “put in your time” and keep up appearances. I don’t like having to get all my groceries and run all my errands at night and on weekends – what if I want to go to the store at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday? What if I want to play with my child in the park on Thursday at 3 p.m.? What if I want to go jogging on Wednesday at 1 p.m.? I can’t do any of that when I have a “job.”

Most of all, I hate having a cubicle.

Think about it. Do you know of anyone who truly likes their cubicle? Do you like your cubicle? If you had a choice, would you ever in a million years choose to work in a cubicle? Isn’t there something fundamentally pathetic about the way so many of us spend the majority of our waking hours, hunched inside these fabric-padded boxes, peering at computer screens, eating our sad little microwaved lunches off our desks?

This is America, right? “Land of the free, home of the brave” – but this “old” way of working in a cubicle – the isolation, the sensory deprivation, the bad lighting, the walling-off-of-oneself from the wider world – doesn’t feel very “free” to me, or very brave.

Fortunately, I believe that we are on the cusp of something better – much better – than life in a cubicle.

With Elance, I’ve discovered the start of a new way of work – and a better way of life.

Cubicles are the phone booths of the future.

Someday, people are going to look back at cubicles with the same sense of disbelief that today’s kids have when they look at phone booths.

When was the last time you used a phone booth? (When was the last time you even saw a phone booth?)

It sounds absurd, right? Who needs a phone booth in this day and age, when everyone carries phones in their pockets? Imagine, having to sit in one specific spot and use one specific phone just to make a call!

Well, someday – probably sooner than most of us expect – people will look at cubicles the same way.

(“Wow,” future visitors to the Cubicle Museum will say, “you had to sit in that thing all day, just to earn a living? You couldn’t go work at the park in the middle of the day, or sit with your laptop by a sunny window at the library, or work from your home office while your children are sleeping?”)

It’s true that there are some jobs where you need to be on-site and work set hours. If you’re a 911 dispatcher, you definitely need to be on call at set hours each day. If you’re an attorney or consultant who works on a billable hour basis, you need to put in a set amount of time to demonstrate your productivity (although the billable hour system is under pressure, as clients look to rein in costs). If you’re a retail store manager or a restaurateur, you need to be where your customers are. If you’re a waiter in a restaurant, serving food, or if you’re a nurse in a hospital helping patients, you need to be “there” in order to do your job.

But for most of us who sit in cubicles – those of us who are “knowledge workers,” who work with information and numbers and words and ideas – there is no “there” there anymore.

You’ve heard of this thing called the Internet, right? You’ve seen some of the smart phones that people are carrying around?

Questions for managers everywhere:

  • Why is it so important to you to have your people sitting in their cubicles for an arbitrary length of time each day? Why is 8 hours so important? Why not 7.569 hours? Why not 3 hours? Who cares, as long as the work gets done?
  • If the only way you have to measure your people’s productivity is the amount of hours they spend at work, shouldn’t you find some better metrics? (This is 2009 – we have the Internet – everything is measurable now. We are all effectively “on commission.”)
  • If the only way you can be sure that your people are working is to force them to sit 10 feet away from you in a cubicle all day, why did you hire them in the first place? (If you’re hiring real professionals, they shouldn’t require such close supervision – don’t you trust your people? And if not, fire them and hire someone better – there’s plenty of great talent in the labor market right now.)

Now more than ever, it’s possible to be available – and highly productive, and totally engaged – while still having the freedom and flexibility to choose when and where and how we work.

With the New Way of Work on Elance, we can work for clients worldwide, and we can do the work from anywhere. Who needs a cubicle?

Elance has changed my life.

Ever since I started my freelance writing business on Elance, I’ve worked with clients in Australia, Tokyo, England, Canada and the Kingdom of Jordan. (As well as all corners of the U.S. – from Seattle to Cleveland to Orlando to Los Angeles.)

I hold conference calls via Skype – for free – with clients whose time zone is 15 hours ahead of mine.

I send draft documents to the client via e-mail before I go to bed at midnight, and I get feedback from the client when I wake up the next morning.

I make much more money (on an hourly basis) working for myself, from home, than I’ve ever made working in a cubicle for someone else. I can make more money in two or three hours than I make sitting in a cubicle for eight hours.

Best of all, I love the work. I should have started doing this five years ago. The work is fun, it’s creative, it’s full of variety and new challenges, and it’s for real customers who are grateful for the help.

Most big companies aren’t ready for the new way of work. (Best Buy is one exception – they’ve implemented a “Results Only Work Environment” at their corporate headquarters which allows employees to basically come and go as they please, as long as the work gets done.) But smaller companies, sole proprietors, and even some innovative larger organizations are going to realize some great benefits from hiring skilled professionals on a flexible, project-by-project basis.

It’s easier than ever before to use sites like Elance to find qualified, vetted, reliable professionals to help on almost any project. You can quickly and easily put a project out for bid and mobilize a talented team from all over the world – and it doesn’t matter that you aren’t all sitting in the same row of cubicles together.

Of course, not everyone wants to be self-employed. There are still going to be “cubicle jobs” for people who want the more traditional idea of job security, or who love working for a particular company. There are still going to be jobs that require a kind of group synergy that only results when everyone is on-site together, or that require a level of confidentiality that is hard to achieve via e-mail alone.

But for those of us with a certain kind of skills, energy and ambition – this is a new day, and the sky’s the limit. We can work for anyone, anywhere, all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you live – all that matters is your skills, your hustle, and your demonstrated reputation for delivering results.

Thank you, Elance for introducing me to the new way of work. I think we’re on to something big.

####

December 17 – UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for reading my post, and thanks for all the great comments and e-mails. The response to this post has been overwhelming, and I am grateful for everyone who took the time to reach out.

If you’d like to stay in touch:

  • Subscribe to my blog – the subscription form is on the right side of the screen; I promise not to send you spam or share your info with anyone.
  • Twitter: @benjamin_gran
  • E-mail: benjamin.gran@gmail.com

All the best,

Ben Gran

“Cubicles are the phone booths of the future.”

23 comments

  1. Wow! Congrats Clark, you must be flying high. Great article. It’s so true “Cubicles are the phone booths of the future.”

    I really like your three questions to managers out there, especially number 3.

    I’ve been working with client through elance for two years. The past year all my work as found me.

    Congrats again.

    Scott

    P.S. no more cubicle birthdays! :)

  2. Hi Ben,
    I am absolutely thrilled for you and yours. Some of this stuff feels like it is moving too fast for me, but it makes since. I’m thrilled with your forward thinking and was wondering how anyone can make a phone call if their cell phone is down and they’re in the middle of no where.
    My sincerest congratulations!
    Had to brag about you at work. Wow.

  3. Congratulations Ben!

    For finding the new way to work, and for winning the bid! :D
    You truly are a good writer..
    All the best to you for your future projects..

  4. I pray that you will always use your powers for good. Congrats on being recognized as a great writer and an innovator….You have always been my own Jesus preaching in the temple, you know….
    love to you and your family, always….

  5. The average person does not have enough self-discipline to make their own schedule or to work outside of their office– thus, cubicles. Above average people already make their own schedules and have big offices with windows etc.

  6. Wonderful post! Cubicles rob wonderfully talented people of their energy and creativity. Scientific research states that the human mind is only capable of true engagement spurts that last 45 minutes or less. Dismounting from a cognitive task (e.g. exercising or running some errands) for a few hours before reengaging makes way more sense than starring aimlessly at a monitor in a cubicle to recharge one’s mental focus. Only when more innovative companies begin to employ the “mobile office” will we see smaller companies join and start a true tipping point. Can’t wait for more online, niche companies like Elance to spring up in the future!

  7. Hey, there were phone booths in The Matrix!

    I think the world you describe will become more feasible as younger generations move into the work force. People that are used to being connected all their waking hours and are not only comfortable with, but also effective and efficient at, keeping up quality communication with collaborative tools.

    Once enough people understand the collaboration tools and how to best use them, workers won’t have to be physically in the office every day to keep the company running. It will also require a new generation of HR workers who can craft rules and regulations based on the distributed way of working. …. AND, as you mention, company leaders who build their corporate culture around results and encouraging use of the new tools to achieve even better results.

    Glad to hear your Elance gig is working out for you so well!

  8. I’m trying to get up the courage to freelance myself.

    I share a cubicle with a printer. The darn thing is whirring and people are standing behind me shuffling paper all day.

  9. 10 Reasons People Cannot Break Out of 9-5
    1. Need for fulltime benefits, especially medical insurance
    2. Following the path worn by predecessors
    3. Willingness to exchange X life hours for Y dollars
    4. Lacking the wherewithal to achieve (some form of) self employment
    5. Striving for X years of “vested” service benefits
    6. Must maintain regularity of income >= spend ratio
    7. Confidence & creativity to define what they have to offer
    8. More role models of this than of independent behavior
    9. Often the path of lesser resistance
    10. Mass hypnosis / mass support
    11. (Bonus) Did I mention Medical insurance, insurance, insurance?

  10. Hi Ben,

    Congratulations!

    As a client of yours, I not only know your writing ability is excellent and your win well deserved; I also fully agree with your article.

    Prior to starting my own business, I spent many years in a company cubicle and know well how confined and demotivating those things are.

    While writing this, I am sitting at my notebook in my home office, windows wide open. Such a contrast from spending years sitting in a windowless cubicle.

    How delightful it is to see and hear several varities of birds as they frollic about in the flowering gum trees outside my window. Undergirding their melodic chirping is a quite, but constant humm, from bumble bees busily visiting the surrounding garden.

    As you can imagine, my creativity is flowing like a river!

    Thanks to Elance, and quality Freelancers such as you Ben. I have a cost-effective avenue to access professionals as I need them. Never again will I return to the cubicle prisions of the past.

  11. Thanks Bob,

    These are all great ideas. I’m going to write some follow-up blog posts in response to some of the ideas sent in by readers. I agree that medical insurance is huge – but not insurmountable for most people. (Of course, if we lived in Canada, Australia, Britain or Western Europe, I’d already be self-employed.)

    Best wishes,
    Ben

  12. Hello Ben,

    Those are great insights – I agree that the generational angle is huge, and the HR profession needs to figure out how to adapt rules and regs for the “new way of work.”

    Best wishes to you. I’m going to write some follow-up posts in response to these ideas and others.

    – Ben Gran

  13. Very inspiring! I also hate cubicle and everything that surrounds it… hopefully, if everything turns good with my academic writing service business this year, i could free myself from my old cubicle as well and expand my career toward much better future. Thanks!

  14. Just coming across this post now, but wanted to say that the way you describe your feelings for cubicle life are the thoughts that run across my head every single day. I’m just now starting to build my profile on Elance and hope to begin bidding on jobs within the next couple weeks. Thanks for the great thoughts to help encourage me that I’m on the right track!

    @(another)Bob – Those “reasons”, as the other Scott said, are just excuses. I think a major obstacle, one that I’ve run into myself, is that many people see the world through an “I can’t do that” filter rather than a “What do I need to do to accomplish that?” filter. People living the unencumbered life will always be happier than those living the “I can’t” life.

  15. Thanks for the comment, Scott. Good luck to you on Elance! I almost quit before I got started – there were times where I thought, “Why am I staying up late building a profile? Is this even going to work? Is anyone going to hire me? Is this whole thing just another online moneymaking scam?” But it really can work, and it can be a ton of fun as well.

    I totally relate to that “I can’t do that” filter idea. After all, who decides who succeeds? No one is going to come to your house, knock on your door, and tell you, “You have my permission to succeed. Now, go forth!” The most successful people in the world don’t wait for someone else to give them permission. They just go out and start doing the work.

  16. Wonderful article! You touched on lots of the reasons I hated (yes, I would say hated) working in a corporate environment. I dreaded going to work every day, even when I truly liked my co-workers. The environment is what got to me. And I’m not a morning person, yet everyone else in my group got to work early, so you can imagine the impression I made on a daily basis despite the fact that my work was excellent.

    Now that I work 100% from home, I really love it, and I’ve almost built my income back up to what I was making in a traditional work environment. All the sacrifices have been 1000% worth it.

    Again, great article and congrats on your win!

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