Name Plates in the Cube Farm

I once worked in an office environment that was a vast array of cubicles, and every cubicle had a name plate to identify the cube’s inhabitant. There were two kinds of name plates available; one type was a free-standing A-frame of the type you see on executive desks that say “The Buck Stops Here” and the other type was a flat frame that clipped to the cubicle wall.

From my perspective, the free-standing ones were more useful. You could put it on top of your cubicle’s shelf unit, and anyone within 50 feet could see it and know where you were sitting. That’s very useful for helping new employees figure out who’s who and who’s where, and for locating someone in a part of the cube farm that you’re not familiar with.

The flat ones were less useful, as you could only really see them when you were within a few feet of the person’s cube. In other words, you had to begin your search with pretty tight parameters, such as “third floor, north wing, fifth row” which is a lot more complicated than just “third floor, north wing,” or “near where Bob sits,” or even “over there” if you’re already in the north wing.

Given that I’m in the business of helping people figure things out and do things, I much preferred the free-standing name plates that could be seen from afar. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of my colleagues–in some cases people in the same line of work as me–preferred the flat ones. I thought about this for a while and eventually realized that name plates perform another function that I hadn’t considered before. They are territorial markers.

Not being one to lay much territorial claim to a cubicle, this had escaped me at first. After all, I didn’t put any personal photographs or art projects or any other significant “me” markers around. (Exception: I pinned a cartoon that I’ve been carrying around for 15 years on the wall, along with a slip of paper on which was written my verbal mantra, “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”) Because really, I’m happy to show up every day and to do good work, but I don’t want to move in.

However, some of the cubicles around me were overflowing with photos, children’s doodles, plants, gizmos, knick-knacks, and other personal detritus. (There’s a good article on CNN about this phenomenon.) Whatever. It’s your cubicle dude, you can decorate it as you like. But the name plate is there to help people find you.

What really drove home that these were territorial markers was when I noticed some people had their name plates inside their cubicles, where only people in the cubicle could see them.

Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes people just don’t think things through. But I brought this up a few times with a few people–doing so casually so as not to raise defenses–and the response was always along the lines of “whatever, it’s how I like it,” as if the location of your name plate was purely a matter of personal preference, like the color of your socks. When I pressed them on the issue of people needing to find them they’d say something like “if people want to find me all they need to do is ask!” (Insert mental “GONG” sound here…)

I’ll let you ponder that. In the meantime, I’m deleting a lot of text that I had written–stuff along the lines of this being so territorial it’s like a declaration of war–because I try not to be judgemental. Let’s just say that if you don’t understand what the purpose of a cubicle name plate is, you probably don’t understand a lot of other things you need to know to do your job right, especially if you’re in the same line of work as me.

Here’s a picture in case you were reading too fast.

Update:

Due to overwhelming demand in the comments, here is the cartoon that I’ve been carrying around for 15 or so years. OK, maybe it’s eight years. Or nine. No, at least nine. Maybe 12… It’s my “justify your existence” mantra, and in a way it relates to the name plate issue:

(For more like this, check out Ted Goff’s website: www.tedgoff.com.)