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Good Cubicles Make Good Co-Workers

Jun 24, 2024

As I reinforced a fence this weekend to make it miniature donkey-proof (yup, that’s what I was doing), I recalled bits and pieces of a Robert Frost poem called Mending Wall that we studied in middle school.

Mending Wall is about two men gathering each spring to mend the wall between their properties. The speaker questions why the wall exists since there are no livestock involved and wonders if the neighbor is just living in the past by having a fence that has no purpose. The neighbor spoke on two occasions with his simple refrain, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

When I first read this poem again, it seemed as though the neighbor was stubborn, insisting that they rebuild the wall for the sake of peace among neighbors while the speaker tried to stop this practice of separation. During my second reading, it became clear that the speaker is perpetuating this practice as well. He is the one who calls the neighbor each spring to begin the wall-mending process. The speaker also admits that he walks the fence throughout the year mending openings made by hunters and natural ground movements.

As a reader, I am left to ponder which of these men is the actual “wall builder” and which one is just doing as the other does for the sake of getting along. While I don’t claim to be an expert in interpreting great works like this one, it is clear to me that each of these men is perpetuating the hard work of their separation while facing the internal conflict that begs the question of whether good fences really do make good neighbors.

I believe we have the same issue in our workplaces and the recent exodus from the office to save money and increase productivity by working from home has only exasperated the issue. We spent decades designing the best cubicle layouts and materials to reduce interaction between co-workers in the same room. We utilized new technology to enable instant messaging between co-workers who are less than 10 feet away.

Good cubicles make good co-workers.

Our separation then moved from simply “not being able to hear or see each other” to never even running into each other in the hallways as our bedrooms and kitchen tables became our new cubicles. For those looking to build the most private spaces in hopes of only interacting with co-workers during scheduled conversations, the work-from-home transition and subsequent decision to stay that way has made many of us confused when a co-worker calls without warning. Why would someone reach out to me when I’m busy checking boxes in my highly productive guest room?

Good cubicles make good co-workers.

Like the neighbors who mend the walls between them a little bit each year and then together each spring, we brag about our company cultures because we gather the team together for an annual offsite, which keeps us all connected and feeling healthy. Yet the nuance of our dialogue says otherwise. Many remote workers talk about the lack of camaraderie on their team. They complain that no one knows them. Remote workers report a lower number of work friends, which sounds great for the industrial manager who wants a singular focus on productivity, but that theory falls apart when burn-out is high, turnover is high, and ownership mentality is low, leading to more issues and fewer solutions.

Some will read this and tell me why I’m wrong. You will emphatically point to statistics and growth metrics as your proof. In some cases, my logic may not actually matter. But those are the exceptions, and I didn’t write this for the outliers.

For the rest of you, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.

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Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

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