Conquering the Cubicle Syndrome

I’m going to violate one of the cardinal rules of technical writing, and alienate my audience right off the bat: I’ve never worked in a cubicle. But (here’s where I try to regain your sympathy) I have worked for long periods of time under similar circumstances, and what I humbly dub “the cubicle effect” extends far beyond those domino-style wall panels technical writers love to hate. Still with me? Good. So what’s this cubicle syndrome I referred to?

It goes a little bit like this: cubicles aren’t really physical walls–they’re a state of mind. In effect, it’s the belief that you’ve been compartmentalized and isolated that defines the cubicle. The four-sided, felt-lined livestock pens loved by evil office managers everywhere hides the truth: cubicles are all about being isolated and treated as part of the building infrastructure, whatever the physical location of your chair. For instance, staff dubbed my first office with my current employer “the aquarium”: it had four walls and a door, but the only window was the glass panel beside the door that looked out onto a high-traffic hallway. This office had all the drawbacks of a cubicle (small, enclosed space with no view) and none of the advantages (a warm, fuzzy décor and neighbors). Worse yet, people walked past every now and then and paused to stare in through the window. So now I know what the fish feel like, though I can’t fully empathize because I wasn’t a subject-matter expert (the legendary SME, pronounced “smee”) and thus, nobody ever delivered any food in an attempt to curry favor.

When we moved to our new building, I traded in the aquarium for a room with a view: it’s an ergonomically painted office with a window looking out onto our back yard and the trees, sparrows, squirrels, groundhogs and neurotic cottontail rabbit that live there. Nice! But it turns out that I hadn’t yet escaped the aftereffects of the cubicle syndrome. I had all the advantages of a real office, but the isolation was still there. I now had neighbors, my Communications Team colleagues, and that must have lulled me into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, they weren’t the authors and SMEs that my life as a writer, editor, and translator depended on. I was reminded of this crucial distinction during the first online help project I undertook.

While I was playing with the software, getting to know it well enough to start writing, I inadvertently gave a new working file the same name as a large file that I’d already saved on my hard disk earlier that day. The software didn’t warn me, and with the press of a button, I overwrote an entire morning’s work. I wasn’t particularly heartbroken, since the work had all involved testing the software rather than creating something my job depended on, but I imagine the eventual users wouldn’t have been so sanguine. So I phoned up the developer, who worked one floor up and maybe 100 feet away from me as the ant crawls.

“Jean, I think I’ve just discovered a pretty major bug. I lost 3 hours of work because the software didn’t warn me that I’d be overwriting an existing file.”

Dead silence on the other end of the line. Just as I was beginning to get worried, Jean cleared his throat, and in a very defensive voice, replied: “I don’t understand. Why do you call this a bug?”

I experienced one of those wonderful moments, ubiquitous during encounters with SMEs, when you suddenly feel like you’re the first human to encounter an utterly alien race, and you have no idea how to communicate with them. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Jean is French and I’m English, and there’s a certain linguistic and cultural divide on top of our very different working contexts. But the problem, it turns out, was not a communications failure per se so much as the sinister effects of the cubicle syndrome. You see, I’d been enjoying the privacy of my office so much that I’d forgotten to get out every now and then and mingle with the authors and SMEs for matters other than work.

I solved this particular problem the same way I should have solved it right from the start: I made the heroic effort required to leave my “cubicle” and walk the 100 feet necessary to pay Jean a personal visit; fortunately, I walk to work every day and play hockey on weekends, so my heart was up to the challenge. We chatted a bit about various things, then I reintroduced the problem, and it turned out that we’d simply tripped up over a language problem: to Jean, a bug was a calculation error, not something that caused lost files. We certainly both agreed that the problem needed to be fixed; it was just the terminology that was problematic. Round about then, long after my brain should have kicked in, I remembered that Jean also tended to ignore written questions on his edited manuscripts and that the only way to get good responses was to drop in and ask those questions. Armed with this new understanding, and the knowledge that Jean was simply one of those people you have to talk to in person to communicate successfully, I had a much easier time with the rest of the documentation project.

I also took home a much broader lesson, one that I’d already learned but had somehow forgotten along the way: Communication is about contact between two people, not simply an exchange of words. Some people are perfectly happy to communicate by e-mail, others in print, and others by phone, but many simply prefer to communicate face to face. I’ve once again made it standard practice to informally drop in on my authors and SMEs at least weekly–more often if we’re collaborating on a project–to ensure that the lines of communication remain open and that I don’t just drop in when it’s time to assault them with a problem. The ongoing relationships really do smooth out the more formal business aspect of our relationships. And that’s the real take-home message: a cubicle really is a state of mind, and (you should pardon the wording) thinking outside the box is the only sure cure to the cubicle syndrome.

Reprinted with permission from Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. Originally published in May 1999.

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