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Why I fled the office cubicle

By Max Barry, Special to CNN
  • Max Barry says there are two kinds of employees: people and human resources
  • NYC health department issued excruciatingly detailed behavior rules for a new office
  • Why? Human resources are stupid, need instruction; "people" smarter, managers smarter still
  • Barry: Cubicle settings breed totalitarian social rules; in old days, people just dealt

Editor's note: Max Barry is the author of three novels, including the corporate satire "Company". His fourth, "Machine Man," is slated for release in August. He blogs at

(CNN) -- There are two types of employee: people and human resources. It's easy to tell which one you are.

If your boss says, "Todd, please have your team reach a final decision," you're a person. If she says, "Todd, please organize a team meeting, and because it's lunchtime remember you should supply food, and please cut the breads or sandwiches into either halves or quarters, to discourage over-eating, and remember that crumbs and spills attract uninvited guests," you're a human resource. And you work for the New York City Department of Health.

The difference between people and human resources is that people have brains. People don't need a company policy on how to ascend stairs (stay left, hold the handrail at all times, look straight ahead). People can figure that out for themselves. Human resources, on the other hand, are dumb as a box of hammers. They need everything spelled out.

Human resources are basically office equipment with legs. They're talking furniture. In fact, they're worse than furniture, because at least furniture stays where you put it. It doesn't have body odor, or forward chain e-mails, or stop by to tell you about its sick cat.

The Department of Health in New York has taken a lot of heat over the last two weeks for its "Life in the Cubicle Village" memo, a set of excruciatingly detailed guidelines for employees moving into its new offices in Queens this month. Some found it insulting to receive instructions on how to, for example, tell a co-worker they're busy ("I'm in the middle of something. May I drop by or call you later [give a specific time]?"). Or to be told to avoid eavesdropping on cubicle neighbors ("If that fails, at least resist the urge to add your comments.").

Some thought the specifications on acceptable light snacks during meetings ("drinks cannot contain more than 25 calories per 8 ounces") to be a little heavy on the micromanagement.

But these rules are totally necessary. Have you ever worked in an office? Then you know what I'm talking about. Some of these human resources are animals. If there weren't company guidelines on how to navigate the revolving front door (wait for people inside to fully exit before stepping in), they'd never get past the lobby.

They don't actually follow the guidelines, of course. There are e-mails about the guidelines, they're mentioned in the all-staff meetings, they're on the cork board beside the coffee machine, but somehow still these people remain oblivious. Some do it on purpose. They deliberately flout the guidelines.

You know that guy? Yeah. That guy. When he leaves half an inch of gritty black goo in the bottom of the percolator, he knows what he's doing. He knows you're going to stop by with exactly 90 seconds before being locked in a two-hour meeting on synergizing coalistics and all you want in the world is a quick caffeine hit. He enjoys your frustration. It's what he lives for. It's why he comes in every day. It sure isn't to do any work. The man is useless. You will never understand why management can't see that.

But I digress. The point is: Human resources need rules. You don't. You're a person. To you, such minutiae is not merely unnecessary, and not only an insult: It's a challenge. Someone says you must cut bagels into halves or quarters, you know what you're going to do? Frickin' thirds. That's right. Enjoy your bagel thirds, people. Because oppression foments rebellion. That's what King George III didn't realize. You can't treat people like idiots. Not people people.

You'll notice that managers are people. This is why the guidelines never apply to top brass. Sure, they'll pretend to abide by them, to set a good example. But that's for show. You don't pay a CEO 5 million bucks a year to follow a set of instructions that could be performed by a well-trained monkey. CEOs should be using their initiative. Getting creative. Shedding outdated thinking. Pioneering new markets. You can't do that by following the book.

But for the rest of us: guidelines. It's because we're living on top of each other. In the old days, when men were men and men had offices, it didn't matter whether someone wore strong cologne. It would bother you for about eight seconds as they passed by.

With offices, loud personal conversations happened behind closed doors. We didn't need guidelines on what constituted an acceptable ring-tone. Well. There were no ring-tones, obviously. But if there had been, it wouldn't have mattered. Because of offices. Offices with doors.

Now it's all open plan. It's rolling cubicle farms. You know what we're becoming? Singapore. Bubblegum isn't allowed in Singapore because everybody lives within earshot of 5 million other people. You can't have that kind of population density without totalitarian social rules. That's what these workplace guidelines are: blueprints for a new, cramped society.

I got out. I couldn't take it any more. Now I work from home. My smells are my business. No one leaves the coffee pot technically not empty but me. It's not all upside. I miss the steady paycheck. I miss being able to go to the bathroom and think, "I'm getting paid for this." But I don't miss the guidelines. I do like being a person.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Max Barry.