Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Efficiency in Lieu of Sanity? The Rise of the Cubicle.

Nearly ten years ago, directors of mental asylums nationwide felt compelled to explore tactics to increase patient numbers. “People aren’t so crazy these days,” said Abdullah Halsey, Director of The Clearview Institute, during the meeting’s opening remarks, “I blame the increasing availability of illegal drugs… Our services are becoming obsolete.”

Halsey expressed a view held by many of his peers, “Without a healthy, sizeable patient population, institutions experience diminishing revenues.” This certainly proved to be the case during the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, the quality of life within many “havens of health” was called into question. Satellite TV. Weekly pizza dinners. Trips to local skating rinks. These are the types of services that, when sacrificed, lead to infuriation and near chaos among patients and employees.

At the historic meeting held during January of 2001, employees from 213 national asylums spent a weekend brainstorming methods of recruiting new patients. During those exhaustive meetings, an idea emerged that has proven successful for a plethora of world-wide organizations: mass popularization of the cubicle.

The cubicle is cheap. It’s small and easy to construct. It matches the fluorescent lighting that decorates so many offices. It gives employees a bit of space--- not enough to provide a particularly private atmosphere--- but enough to minimize foul play and cut costs without causing irrevocable damage to a person’s mental health.

Lacking the ability to effectively shut out co-workers, employees are often fearful of pursuing activities that could endanger their employment. Infidelity spurred by steamy work relations, along with various unethical practices, has decreased significantly. One young paralegal stated, “After watching American Psycho and the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza ritually sleeps underneath his desk, I was inspired to try some crazy stuff at work. But there wasn’t enough privacy within my cubicle to really express myself. I had to let go of my dreams. I felt cheated.”

Businesses have drastically cut office-related expenses (not to mention ethical hiccups) and enjoyed impressively high turnover rates, while asylums are instituting waiting lists to accommodate an uncharted level of demand.

The most notable success of this story, however, is found in a bright restaurant in New York’s West Village. Amidst the clatter of dishes and youthful banter, a young woman sits alone in an orange leather booth near the window. After spending nearly six months (an impressively long haul) surrounded by the maroon walls of her Sullivan & Foster LLP cubicle, with nothing beyond staples and push-pins to give life to her work-space, Millie Kerr decided to take some time “off.” Inspired by her older brothers and practically commanded by her roommate, Kerr came to the increasingly popular conclusion that a short visit to an asylum would in fact prove preferable to the monotony of office life.

Kerr recalls, “It wasn’t really the size of the cubicle. It was the fact that I stared directly into the hinged edge of its two sides. That little corner reminded me of hell. Incidentally, I also suffered from staple wounds all over my hands. And I just can’t afford that type of danger.”

Kerr, whose long-term career plan involves hand-modelling and starring on Saturday Night Live, let go of her symbolic red stapler to submit to her secret desire to spend several lazy months in an institution. “I really felt like Anthony in Bottle Rocket--- I departed the asylum refreshed. I also met great people there. It was a nice change after spending my whole life surrounded by success and sanity.”

Content in the warm atmosphere provided by the neighborhood cafe, Kerr stares out the window to the busy street beyond.

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