Sunday, October 24, 2010

Five Cubicle Survival Tips

Ugh.  The thought of working in one of these makes my skin crawl.  Yet we all had to do it at one time in our lives.  Here are some tips on how to survive the cubicle nightmare.

The modern office cubicle.  I can smell it - that carpet smell.  The drop ceiling, the florescent lights.  The break room.  Donuts in the conference room.  The Dilbert cartoons tacked on the walls.  You know the deal.  It is a horrible place to work and a horrible way to live.  And yet so many Americans have to endure it - at least for a while.

The secret with such jobs is to look at them as a means to an end - not an end in and of themselves.  If you stay focused on the larger prize - and by that, I don't mean the corner office, because that ain't likely to happen, as we shall see - you can make it though to the other side.

1.  Don't get Baited #1:  As I noted in the post They're BAITING You! when you get your first job out of college, you think this is pretty swell.  You have a cubicle with your name on it, a stack of papers to work on, and a boss that seems pretty nice.  And hey, that paycheck ain't so bad, either, right?  Within a few minutes or hours or days of your starting work, "the guy" with a cup of coffee will come to your cubicle, lean on the wall, and then hold forth, for an hour or more, on how lousy a place it is to work, how the boss is sleeping with his secretary, the products suck, and everything is corrupt and venal.

And in every company, there is always "the guy" - often several of them.  Some companies are entirely staffed with them.  If you let this guy into your life, he will take up literally hours of your day with his depressing stories about work, life, and everything else in general, and bring you down - way down - to the point when you get home, you will be exhausted emotionally and physically.

Worse yet, if management sees you chatting with "the guy" for hours, they will not think much of you - and the time wasted with these sorts of people ends up cutting into your productivity, resulting in negative performance reviews.  If you keep hanging out with "the guy", before long, you will become him and your life will be hell.

Minimize work time chit-chat.  It is hard to do without coming across as aloof or a jerk.  But people will respect you more.  And the less people know about you, the more they will respect you as well.  And of course, the more work (and better work) you do, the more you will be respected.  So there is no upside to being overly intimate with work people.  It just means you will burn out on them all the more faster.

Getting "the guy" out of your cubicle is not easy to do.  When he shows up, say "Gee, all this coffee!  I have to use the restroom!"  But that can backfire, of course, if he follows you in there.  Or find an excuse to take an "urgent memo" to another floor and do the elevator walk with him.  Don't be surprised if he tries to follow you on the elevator though.  Sometimes, you just have to be firm and say "Gee, this project needs to be completed yesterday, sorry I don't have time to chat!"  But don't be surprised if he suggests you blow it off.

Being tactful with "the guy" (who could be a gal, as well) is important, as he is the company gossip, usually, and if you piss him off, he will spend the rest of the day, leaning up against the walls of other people's cubicles, telling them what a jerk you are.

2.  Don't Get Baited #2:  As I also noted in the They're BAITING You! post, there is a secondary type of "the guy" who is more than just a time-wasting gossip.  This type will try to bait you into hating the company, your boss, and work in general.  His goal is to get rid of you, and getting you depressed about work and unhappy in your job is one way of doing that.

Do such Machiavellian people really exist?  Yes and No.  Yes, they do, I've seen it firsthand.  But No, they might not be doing it consciously.  The human mind is very powerful and is programmed for survival.  So people do things, and often don't realize what their real motivations are - even if they are apparent to everyone else.

This guy will bait you and bait you and try to get you thinking about leaving the company, only because you are one notch ahead of him in the promotion game.

This is a tougher customer to deal with than the boring guy, who merely wastes your time.  Somehow, you have to convince this type that you are not a threat to him, so he will leave you alone.  Or you have to take him out first, by letting his machinations become apparent to management - in a manner that doesn't make it look like you are "tattling" on him.

As we shall see, people with blind ambition and little or no talent can make life in the cubicle very difficult.

3.  Lunch:  One of the pitfalls of cubicle life is lunch.  Seems like a simple thing, but it is a meal fraught with difficulty for the young salaryman.  In most cases, a group of young cubicle-dwellers will usually ask you out for lunch, at least once or twice a week - if not every day.  For many of these folks, lunch is the highlight of the day.  Where to go? What to eat?  So 4, 6, or 8 of you pile into cars and go off to the Chinese buffet and overeat and then gossip for an hour.  And both baiting "guys" will try to use lunch as an opportunity to bend your ear more about the company - the secondary type usually wanting to get you alone for that purpose.

So you come back an hour and a half later, thinking, "Well, I'll just work late tonight" and the boss saw you coming back late from lunch and shakes his head, wondering why he hired such a layabout.  And of course, you are $15.95 poorer on your credit card.  It may not seem like a lot of money, but over time, it adds up, and over time, your waistline will add up as well, and you will start to look like (and feel like and act like) "the guy" as your blood sugar level peaks and valleys through the day.

(And of course, the lunch crowd is the same group that wants to go out to a bar after work for drinks and possibly dinner - squandering yet more of your time and $29.95 of your money.  And not surprisingly, one or more of these idiots "forgot to bring his wallet" and promises to pay you back, but never does!)

Bringing your lunch is also hard to do, as if you eat in the "break room" (ugh!) with all the clerical staff, that may castigate you from your own social caste, as well as mark you in the eyes of the bosses as some sort of loser.  Eating at your cubicle is also a bad idea, for obvious reasons.  Eating by yourself marks you as a loner or weirdo.  I guess the only solution is to not eat at all!  (UPDATE:  See the link below - apparently I am not the only one with "lunch issues.")

I wish I had a clear answer for this one.  The main reason for having a "job" is to make money and accumulate wealth.  Your cubicle neighbors are merely surviving, and if they thought about it, they are working an hour a day just to have that Chinese buffet ($50,000 a year equals about $25 an hour, which after taxes is about the $15.95 you just blew at Al Wong's all-you-can eat buffet).  Working one hour a day just for one meal is not very cost effective, particularly when that money can more than pay for all three meals.

But as we shall see, sometimes you have to go against what appears to be the "crowd" in jobs like that.  If you really look around - at all the workers, not just the loud and obvious ones - you may notice that others are not going out to lunch every day with your "crowd".  Figure out what they are doing and why.  It may be illuminating.

4.  The Money Trap:  Which brings us to the next issue - what to do with all that money you are making.  In most cases, at a new job (or your first job) it seems like you are making a "lot" of money.  You get that first paycheck, and are chagrined to see than Uncle Sugar took out nearly 1/3 of it.  But it's still a lot of dough, right?  Wrong.

The typical young salary-man goes out and spends it, literally faster than he is making it.  Now armed with a W2 and a pay stub, he heads off to the nearest new car dealer, and signs up for five years of car payments, plus the highest cost insurance imaginable.  Hey, for all that hard work, he deserves a "treat", right?  Wrong.

And I've seen this firsthand at companies I visit.  Young Engineers, right out of school, so "proud" of their new Acura, as if they had built it themselves!  And of course, they didn't.  All they did was go to a car dealer, pick one out, and sign the loan papers.  It takes no inherent talent.  And it is not even an indicia of "success" as nearly anyone with a job can buy a fancy car, if they don't mind signing your life away.  About the only people you can lord over with your fancy car are the homeless.  And what is the point in that?

Worse yet, now you are stuck with car payments and HAVE to go off to that cubicle every day.  You will start to hate your job as you have to be there to pay off all this debt!  You are on your way to becoming "that guy" in very short order.  If you have a working, functional car, use it.  If you can take public transportation, use it.  If you can carpool, do that.  Again, you may want to look and see what the "quiet crowd" at work is doing - the guys with families to raise, who are brown bagging their lunch, car pooling to work, and BANKING their paychecks.

The loud crowd who wants to go out to lunch and party is the same crowd that you hung with in high school.  And they think work is just an extension of that.  "Let's have fun!" they say, but they are really dragging you down, in the long-term.

The ultimate goal of having "a job" is not to buy shiny trinkets and presents for yourself, but to pay off debt, accumulate wealth, and be able to quit "the job" when you want to.  If you end up, like most cubicle dwellers, heavily in debt for shiny-shiny, then you are stuck on a never-ending treadmill of misery.

And yes, the flashy crowd at work will literally make fun of you for not having the latest fashions, gadgets and flashiest cars.  But that was the same crowd that made fun of you in high school, and no matter how much you tried to be like them, they never accepted you, did they?  So just chuck all that nonsense and keep your own counsel.  You are working for your own reasons, not to appease them.

5.  Blind Ambition People:  In many companies you may come across "the guy" who has decided that he wants to claw his way up the corporate ladder, come hell or high water, and be President of the company.  And if he had talent and worked hard, no one would have a problem with that.  The problem with blind ambition people is that they have no talent and think work is for chumps like you.  So they use chicanery and whatever means necessary to "get ahead".

These were the guys in college who used cheat sheets from last year's exams to pass.  They get ahead, in the short term.  But in the long run, they usually fail.  Just wait for it, trust me.

To begin with, guys like this are the reason why many companies, above a certain level, do not promote from within.  Companies realize (and sometimes foster) competitiveness among their employees, which up to a certain level, can actually enhance productivity.  Above a certain level, it harms it.  And if you hold out the carrot of the corner office to a cubicle dweller, he may do very unsavory things to get it.

(There are other reasons to hire from outside as well.  Peers will not respect "one of their own" promoted to department head.  So it is better to bring in an outsider who is an unknown quantity to the working drones, and thus respected).

The problem for you, with blind ambition guy, is that if he sees you as an obstacle to his success, then he will spend all day long trying to eliminate you as an obstacle.  And I saw this happen to a friend of mine, firsthand.

The company he worked for hired this jerk, who had nice hair and knew how to interview well.  He pushed people's buttons right and came across as a "man of action" and of course was a sociopath.  I quickly realized he had no real talents, beyond coming across to others as looking successful.   He was smooth and slick and was able to con some management types.  But many others were alarmed by him.

And he could have been productive, even if talent-less, if he could at least manage people.  But he was not very good at that, either.  What he was good at was raw, blind ambition.  And he quickly set his sights on the corner office, his eventual goal to be CFO of the company, where he would have access to the real money.

My friend worked in the department and quickly realized that this guy was a fraud - on many levels.  His resume was heavily padded and his background "enhanced" to make it appear he was more than he was.  And my friend also suspected that he might be stealing from the company - in the form of kickbacks from suppliers.  But how to prove it?  He covered his tracks pretty well.

This is a nightmare scenario for any employee.  You suspect a co-worker or supervisor of stealing from the company, and yet that same co-worker or supervisor is the darling of the section V-P.  You go to the V-P to warn him, and well, you know how that will play out.   They will think you are merely jealous, or a crackpot - and the blind ambition guy will make sure they think that.  And now the blind ambition guy has something to do all day long other than plot how to get the corner office - he will spend his every waking hour figuring out how to get rid of YOU.

How do you handle this?  Like the lunch scenario, it is hard to give advice - only this is far more serious.  Blind ambition people usually crash and burn over time.  So if you let things play their course, eventually the section V-P comes to his senses and fires the guy.  And since most companies don't promote from within above a certain level, blind ambition guy may find himself butting his head against a wall anyway.

If the company really seems to like sociopaths like him - or worse yet, is filled with them - then take this as your cue that you should start thinking about your next job.  Do your work well, stay for a few years, and then move on to somewhere new.  Because a company that fosters people like the blind ambition man will eventually crash and burn, and take you with it.  And my friend's company did just that.  You can't run a company with just ambitious people - you need talent, too.  And presumably, you are the talent.  Go where you are valued.

6. The Corner Office:  One reason blind ambition people do what they do is that in many companies, the corner office is indeed dangled out as a carrot to the ambitious.  Work hard, do well, and someday, son, all of this will be yours!  But as I noted above, in most companies, the corner office is rarely rewarded to people in-house for a number of reasons.

Law firms are a classic example of this - the coveted "partnership" is held out as the goal for young Associates to reach.  Yet, in many firms today, partnership is rarely awarded anymore.  Even during the "good old days" of the law business, maybe 1 in 10 associates would make partner.  A law firm is like a pyramid scheme - you have to have lots of people at the base of the pyramid, and few at the top.

If a new partner is brought in, it is usually someone from outside, with their own client base.  That is the whole deal right there - a client base with at least a million dollars a year in billings.  Without that, you ain't making partner in most firms.  And since most associates are kept to service the existing clients, it is damn hard, if not impossible, to build a client base of your own.  Catch-22.

And companies work the same way.  You can't have 100 Vice-Presidents in a company (although many are trying to do just that, and failing miserably).  Being top-heavy with management is already an epidemic in the US as it is.  So the idea that "everyone" will be promoted over time is clearly nonsense.  You can't make every man a king.

So the odds of you making it to "corner office" and the super-big-paycheck are slim to none.  What happens to the 9 out of 10 associates or workers who never make the corner office?  Well, they do OK, I assure you.  But if you keep that in mind when you are a salary drone - and start saving now and building wealth, rather than relying on a mythical raise and a corner office - you will do much better.

In fact, look around you at work and see how old the employee base is, and make note of what happens to various people in your department or section.  If everyone in the cubicle grid is 35 and under (as most are) then you have to wonder where you will go when you are 36.  Figure this out ahead of time - don't let it "just happen" to you.

And even those who make it to the fabled corner office often find themselves merely better-paid drones.  Unless you are the CEO or CFO and being paid in millions of dollars in stock options, being department head or the like is not going to be all that much more profitable, even if you make 5 times as much as your salary drones.  Because chances are, you, like most Americans, will find ways to squander it on a larger, fancier house, a more expensive luxury car, and other expenses that will grow to accommodate your income like a gas fills an empty space according to Boyle's law.

* * * * *

So what can you do as a cubicle dweller to get ahead?  The answer is simple: Start building wealth from the get-go.  If you can avoid selling yourself into debt and being a "salary slave" for the rest of your life, you will come out ahead no matter what.  Participate fully in the company's 401(k) plan - fully.  Yes, that may mean 15% of your income goes into a mutual fund, but over time, you will become a millionaire, if you keep at it for 20 or 30 years.

And build up after-tax savings as well.  You can avoid spending a lot of money if you stay away from new car dealers, cable TeeVee, fancy gadgets, and shopping mall trips.  The secret is to have an inexpensive lifestyle and then KEEP IT - avoid the temptation to spend more, merely because you are making more.  And no, it isn't easy to do, I will give you that.

But the funny thing is, if you can do this, not only will you "win" even if you retire as a cubicle-dweller, it will also make you more likely to succeed in business and get that coveted corner office or whatever.  Why?  Because when you are no longer financially stressed, you will be more relaxed and work better and come across as more confident and self-assured.  Salary slaves, in debt to their eyeballs, come across as nervous and cautious, because they are.  They worry far too much and are deathly afraid of the next layoff.

And when the opportunity comes to join a start-up company with founder's stock shares, if you have money in the bank, you can "afford" to do it.  Most salary slaves end up turning down opportunity for the "sure thing" of the weekly paycheck that they need to make all those payments to banks and lending institutions.

Or, like me, you can afford to start your own business - if you are not up to your eyeballs in debt and "need" a steady fire hose of money to keep your creditors and bay.

A job is a necessary evil.  You are selling your services to someone else in exchange for money.  If you spend that money as fast as you make it, you are little better than a serf or slave.  If you accumulate wealth by saving money from your job, then you will be your own man.

And the choice is yours.

UPDATE:  I found another site that offers "Five cubicle survival tips" however, it seems a little more superficial - at first.   The website is called "hello giggles" so go figure. 

Some of the advice is really good, some seems off-the-wall:

1.  Make a Friend!  Oh, that sounds kicky!  Actually, you are there to work, and this is serious business, not social hour.  "Friends" at work are not real friends.  Make alliances.   Stop reading books like "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and instead read The Art of War.  By the way, work is a bad place to find a spouse, unless you just plan on getting divorced from the get-go.

2.  Popcorn:  This is actually good advice.  We had a partner at the firm who went ballistic over microwave popcorn.  Seems he was trying to woo a Fortune-500 client and the smell of microwaved popcorn overwhelmed the office.   We lost the client - because a secretary was wolfing down a bag of popcorn at her desk.  They banned microwave popcorn at work.

(By the way there are about 400 calories in a bag of microwaved popcorn, and yea, that is a lot.  Just say "no" to microwaved popcorn.  The hulls are like little sharp knives in your lower intestine.)

Again, this is work, not play.  If you get the reputation for being the one who is always looking for their next "break" or eating at their desk, you are not going to get ahead.   For the salary person, eating in the break room (with the clerical staff) can be career suicide.   Going out to lunch with the other salary drones is equally as bad.

Hey, no one every said this was easy.

3.  Lunch:  At first this sounded like stupid advice, but I think she nailed it:
"Listen, not everyone can work non-stop all day. We’re not robots, we’re humans. And yes, we need to step away from the computer’s light and catch up on some natural rays. Find a place where you can venture off to that’s within walking distance from your job, but far enough away at the same time. It’s also nice to get some solace by not telling other people where you’re going. This place is for you only." (emphasis added)
Having a place to take a quick break and have an inexpensive meal (maybe brought from home) is a good idea.  A local park or cafe or whatever.  Again, eating at work is a bad idea, as is going out to lunch with five fellow employees, draining your checkbook and looking like a lazy slob.

She might be on to something here!

4.  Say No to Gossip:   I think I covered this by talking about "the guy".   Yes, there are office gossips, and they will ruin your life by either taking up all your time with gossip and intrigue, or by making you the subject of gossip.

5. Leave the Fish at Home:  Microwaving fish does indeed sound like a bad idea, but this seems very specific.  But getting back to lunch again, we see that eating at work is a big issue.

An interesting article.  Interesting that she and I both have issues with Lunch!