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Afterthoughts: Consider the Cube

The fundamental unit of the office.


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Mike's desk

Photo: Aaron Yoshino

 

As I write this, the HONOLULU Magazine staff is in its second day in its new offices.

 

We didn’t move far, just up Bishop Street, to a labyrinthine suite we now share with our sister publications Hawai‘i Magazine, Hawai‘i Business Magazine and Hawai‘i Home + Remodeling. It was a move that took months of preparation and countless meetings—the workflow of an almost-50-employee media company is a complicated one, and it’s not just a matter of copy/pasting the entire staff into a new space. There are logistics.

 

But, for all the planning and the whirlwind of activity of the actual move, I’m surprised at how quickly we’ve settled in. Looking around, the boxes are 90 percent unpacked and people are clicking away at their keyboards. We haven’t yet figured out where to put our snack table, and we’re still getting used to the way the new mailroom works, but we’ve already had several story-art meetings, and turned in a few drafts. Move or no move, the pulse of magazine work continues uninterrupted.

 

Part of the feeling of continuity is that, even though I’m sitting in an entirely new office, with a new layout, and a new passkey system, and new furniture, my own cubicle looks very much the same as it did this time last week. Sitting at my desk, I see the same office plant, the same cute photos of me and my girl, the same outdated-as-soon-as-I-print-it-out staff directory. I reach to my left, and my wire rack of story notes and clippings are right where I expect them. I look up, and my magazine collection is as overstuffed as always. New office? What new office?

 

It’s funny, cubicles always get scorned in pop culture as the ultimate drone habitat. Pity the poor office worker, imprisoned by a mere three walls. Think of the oppressive pallor of the cube farm in The Matrix, before Neo breaks free, or the overhanging boss of Office Space who drapes himself all over the cubicle corners. Cubicles are easy fodder.

 

But consider the horrifying alternative: the open-office plan. The cubicle was in fact invented in the 1960s by Herman Miller designer Robert Propst as a remedy to the noisy, busy experience of an office with no dividers (the bullpen layout of the Mad Men offices, basically).

 

Can you imagine the thrill of a typewriter jockey of the time being given a cubicle? The wonder of suddenly having a little nook of privacy, however small? It had to have felt like a real upgrade.

 

But, in the same way people started to take vaccines for granted as the decades passed, forgetting about polio and smallpox, so, too, did office workers begin to regard cubicles as symbols of their 9-to-5 frustration. Here we are in the 21st century, and tech companies are now getting applauded for thinking out of the box with their collaborative, free-form offices. In fact, they’re incorporating the hang-loose aesthetic of the freelance worker, with shared desk spaces open for anyone who wants to chill there with a laptop for a while. Ugh.

 

No, I’m a fan of the cubicle, at least to the extent that I’m a fan of modern office life. The cubicle is private enough to offer a writer some time for reflection and composition (although big headphones that visually signal “don’t bother me” are a boon when on deadline). And yet you’re still able to talk story with the co-workers around you, just by piping up a tad. The HONOLULU Mag edit staff carries on entire conversations that way, voices and laughter floating over the cubicle walls even as we’re sitting, typing away at our own tasks.

 

That’s already happening again in our new office—a good sign that we’re going to be just fine here.

 

Read more stories by Michael Keany

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