Back when my 18 year old son was a toddler, I took a job in a credit card center here in Phoenix. There were really great benefits, I was able to “dress up”, wear heels and work in air conditioning in my first true “professional” gig. In the beginning I was euphoric ( I mean, who doesn’t love an excuse to buy pretty shoes?), excited to learn every little thing that I could about the company and customer service during training. Knowing deep down that I was a great fit for this job, and would work hard and work my way up in short fashion, from phone rep to management. Quickly becoming a young and powerful CEO (Yes, it has been pointed out that I have a terribly overactive imagination, and tend to live in my own head more than I should).
Then there was the employee cafe!. You could purchase lunches there with you badge and it would come out of the next paycheck! You didn’t even have to plunge through couch cushions in a frantic attempt to scrape up enough change for a loaf of bread and some Carl Buddig cheap meat (I still have my doubts as to what constitutes “meat” when it is $.075/package, but I digress)! What an astoundingly epic employee benefit! What I did not take into account was that those badge swipes would add up quickly, and that no matter how cheap $2.60 for a soda and soup was, that at the end of two weeks that $2.60 would be taken out of my paycheck, and it would create a vicious never-ending cycle of having to purchase from the cafe when I ran out of money between pay checks. Back then minimum wage was $4.25 and with this move I was able to make a whopping $7.75 an hour. Although I made that almost $3 an hour jump in pay, that is still meager wages by any count. Especially when you factor in an entirely new wardrobe, and health insurances (before we just didn’t have any insurance. If we got sick, we stayed sick until we got better. Or we borrowed cash from our parents to take the baby to the doctor). Boy, was it hard to say no to real food when you know there is only ramen noodles in the cabinet for you and your hubby, since the meager food budget is always spent on baby food and diapers.
I also did not realize the absolute mental drain that I would experience from sitting in a chair, surrounded by 3 gray walls, gray carpet and no ability to walk around because I was tethered to my way-too-short phone cord. To combine the awesome of the cubicle walls was the complete lack of personalization. No art. No motivational posters. Absolutely no smiling pictures of your beautiful infant or handsome hubby to adorn those drab gray walls with matching gray carpet. Personal pictures are considered unprofessional, so were not allowed. Just gray, gray, gray. Everywhere you look. Oddly most people wore gray, or black and gray as well. A wonderful glowing addition to the infinite acres of gray was the awesomeness that is fluorescent lighting. Even better was the lovely fact that every second of your day was tracked. Upon entering the building you swipe your badge and begin the personal audit trail. When you are at your desk, you have to be signed into your phone. Any breaks, lunch or potty had to be signed out for, and heaven help you if you go over 7 minute potty breaks more than 2X per day, or over that 30 minute window for lunch. Every day I sat there was like a little piece of my soul was being chewed up and spit out by some nameless, faceless corporate ghoul. Ah, yes. Let us not forget to factor in the lack of windows in the “common areas”. Only upper management lined the walls, and they had some windows- but of course due to the extreme heat of Phoenix summers kept them tightly closed.
I can honestly say that this is the first time that I truly felt depressed in my life. But how could I complain? The hubby had a physically demanding job, out in the intense summer time heat, while I was in a windowless building in the air conditioning. It didn’t seem right or fair to say anything negative about my work day as it compared to his.
I did, however start to quietly search for a new job. It became an absolute obsession to get out of that cubicle, by almost any means necessary.
Fast forward almost 20 years and I have come full-circle. I am back in yet another cubicle and feeling that same drain. Thankfully there is not the same level of corporate control in every second of every day, but there are still some similarities. In some ways I want out even worse than I did back then- because I have seen the other side. Because I have had the opportunity to work in an open environment, and experienced the idea that personalization of work areas is not only permitted- but encouraged. Where management understands that human beings need some natural light during the workday, and the ability to “feel at home” sparks creativity and productivity. I have also had the rare privilege of working for myself for over a decade prior to the “Great Recession”.
Don’t get me wrong- I work for a great company, and the benefits are wonderful, and I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work here. It is just that sometimes you really miss writing your own story everyday, you know?
So, yes- starting all over is tough. I am up for it, but it is definitely with much less verve that I am doing so at almost 40 than I had in my early 20’s. I am also finding myself wondering why corporations like Google are able to understand that happy, healthy employees work harder and build accordingly; Whereas so many others are still stuck in Dilbert’s cold, careless cubicle world?
This also makes me ponder about the sedentary lifestyle of today’s corporate work environment, coupled with the drab colors of cubicles, lack of privacy, free will and just plain-old soul sucking corporate protocols are contributing to middle America’s decline via the jump in depression and suicide?
Anyone else feel like the cubicle life is killing us off earlier than it should?