“Human Filing Cabinets?

I ran across this term a couple of years ago in reference to office buildings — and it made my skin crawl.  Much has been said about the depersonalization of the modern technology worker’s work space.  How can one be creative, innovative and contributing when in a work environment that has all the ambience given to a caged chicken?  When I drive by the high-rise buildings, (I consider anything where you can’t have your feet in the grass in thirty paces a high-rise) I cringe in mental pain for those trapped inside in surroundings they endure to survive.

Here’s a piece from “The Dilbert Principle,” by Scott Adams:Businessman holding a paper with a prisoner behind the bars on it in front of his head

Boss – “We’ve got a lot of empty cubicles because of downsizing.  I hired the Dogbert construction company to convert part of the office into prison cells which we’ll lease to the state.”

Dilbert – “Sounds like a big job.”

Boss – “ Nah, a little paint, new carpet and we’re there.”

The cartoons continue to relate the differences in employees and prisoners; namely that the prisoners had a better health plan.  And ultimately, the plan to use spare cubicles as prison cells had to be abandoned because of too many complaints from the prisoners.

Work settings cannot be alienating and dehumanizing if we are to produce anything beyond what a machine could produce.  Anything resembling “Human Filing Cabinets” will ultimately suck the life, energy and thinking intelligence out of those who succumb to that alternative.

You may work in a building similar to what I’ve described here.  What have you done to make it a more personal and enriching place to be?

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  • This post makes me cringe. I VERY much worked in that environment for almost four years. Duct tape holding the carpet together, burnt orange cubicle walls, dust like you wouldn’t believe, old equipment that was there since the 1970’s, leaks when it rained, etc. The whole atmosphere felt “worn out” – this including many of the employee attitudes. You could see it in the way they walked (heads down and shoulders permanently hunched forward) , as well as in their attitudes (didn’t say hi, didn’t hold the door open for others behind them, didn’t say thank you or please to the lunch staff, seemed startled almost when someone smiled at them in the hallway, etc.) It was depressing.
    Rather than change that make that location a more enriching place to be, I decided to focus on making my life more enriching by changing career paths. The experience has certainly made me more empathetic to folks who work in this environment…for me, I am very grateful for the experience as it was a driver in helping me to find the life I was meant to live. Without this experience, I am pretty sure I would NOT be doing the things I am getting to do today.

  • Greg

    I highly suggest watching an old 1990’s film – Joe Versus the Volcano starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan – especially in the beginning where it is stated that the office is sucking the life out of him (and he gets told he has an incurable disease). Yeah its a goofy movie, but along the way Joe has a spiritual experience and thanks God for his life.

  • Bonnie Lynch

    I’ll never forget something that one of my grad school mentors (an expert in human intelligence) said: Intelligence is a matter of realizing when an environment is not working for you, and recognizing whether you should invest the effort to fit into the environment (change yourself), fix whatever isn’t working for you (change the environment) or choose a different place to be (seek a new environment). Every office job I ever had became life-sucking at some point (even without Jen’s orange, duct-taped carpet!). It took me a while, but I figured out that what I needed to do was select a new environment. Five years into self-employment, I can’t imagine ever going back to what was, for me, a very unproductive and unsatisfying environment.

    • Bonnie – I think the key is to recognize we always have options. Feeling trapped makes people lose sight to their ability to choose. Thanks for your comments.

      • Bonnie Lynch

        Indeed, Dan!

  • PaulVandermill

    Greetings Dan,

    Human file cabinets, that really rings a bell! It took me a long time to realize that, for me, being ill at ease in a highly structured, rigid environment may not necessarily suggest a problem but rather a poor fit. The culture of an organization supports a certain way of thinking. If that is inflexible and in consistent with how you think, or are wired, look out.

    Being open minded to the possibilities is huge. Exploration may lead to discovering things we did not know about ourselves and also help explain why some of us are so ill at ease in the human file cabinet.

    I really appreciate Bonnie’s realizing that the problem was not internal to her but rather a poor match between she and her former work environment.

    • Paul,
      I realize not everyone is wired as I am – but thank goodness for the choices we all have. Sounds like you’re finding what fits you best as well.