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BEWARE: Zombies in Cubicle Graveyards05 May 2009 08:16 am

zombies.jpgThere’s a seen in the 1978 horror movie “Dawn of the Dead” when people trying to escape a gang of zombies fine refuge at the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania.

The mall is empty. Not a customer around. But the frightened victims go about doing mall things like trying on clothing and eating, pretending to be normal.

This is sort of what’s happening to many office dwellers in Corporate America these days. Workers who survived layoffs roam half empty offices, with endless empty desks and cubicles, trying to be normal.

A friend of mine who saw her company decimated by layoffs told me yesterday that people have gotten to calling the large expanses of empty desks and meeting rooms “Greenville”, and the clustered pockets of inhabited desks the “inner city.”

It’s bad enough that morale is in the toilet, but some unthinking employers have done little to deal with the growing wastelands that are becoming all to familiar in offices around the country.

It’s doing a number on the people left behind. I call this “empty desk syndrome.”

This comes from a layoff survivor’s blog post:

“The oppressive weight of the empty desks to my left and right permeates my thoughts.”

Paul Eagle, principal at Perkins+Will, a commercial building architectural firm, understands the office-dwelling employees’ plight today. “Corporate workspace, eviscerated from waves of layoffs, can take on a very isolated feel if not remedied by corporate facility managers,” he says.

“This landscape, similar to neighborhoods of foreclosed or vacant homes, can result in a workforce that suffer from both survivor guilt and relief,” he explains. “Remaining staff will replicate nesting and clustering behavior, where they will unilaterally relocate or reconfigure their workplace to bring themselves closer to other remaining staff.”


People do what they have to do when they’re feeling down and in need of comforting.

“Initially it’s a grieving process as people look around and see empty desks where their colleagues once worked,” says Leslie Seppinni, a clinical psychologist. “This has an even stronger impact if a person has been there a long time and remembers what the company was like before, like its history and what it stood.”

Workers look around the wide, open emptiness, she adds, and wonder, “am I next?”

Workplace consultant Edith Onderick-Harvey of The Talent Advantage offers some advice for employees to help them deal with empty desk syndrome.

*Don’t close yourself off from the other people who are still with the company. In times of increased layoffs, people tend to circle the wagons and put their heads down to “just get the work done.” This isolation breed further disillusionment, negativity and depression. Seek out peers, have a cup of coffee, find reasons to collaborate, go to lunch. However, don’t spend ALL your time with them talking about how bad things are. There will be a natural desire to vent about the situation. Set boundaries. Vent for a few minutes and then move on to more positive topics.
* Focus on what you can bring to the job to make yourself and your company more successful. There is plenty that is out of our control in times like these. While there are no guarantees, the more value you continue to provide, the more likely it is you will succeed and that will have an impact on your firms success. Ask how your boss about the company’s priorities and how you can contribute to them.
* On a logistical note, if the empty cubicles and desks are interspersed with one’s still occupied, see if you can change where people sit. This can create the feeling of increased connection and teamwork because there is not a vast wasteland between you and the next person.

Tips for workers are helpful, but we also need managers to get off their butts and do something about it.

A few employers are actually being proactive, and trying to transform these cubicle graveyards it to more pleasing spaces.

“Finally empty offices or under-utilized conference rooms can be repurposed for a number of other staff amenity functions,” Eagle maintains.

“In current staff programming surveys, we have seen an increase in requests for prayer rooms, mother’s rooms, and nap rooms,” he says. “And while we are only beginning to see these conversions, it is expected that more of these types of spaces will be provided to staff as this downturn continues.”

I’m figuring prayer rooms will probably come in handy for a lot of people right about now.

Come on human resources managers. You’re praying for a morale boost? Stop reading the latest management BS theory on the topic.

Help your zombies to start digging up the graveyards. You don’t want a bunch of flesh eaters on your hands.

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