Monday, June 08, 2009

BzzAgent's cubicle offer - tonic in a depressing world

There's never a shortage of topics for Pink Slip.  Even on those days when I despair that, while there may be plenty of topics, I won't find anything I really want to post on, something always presents itself.

In grazing around this past weekend for a Monday post, a couple-of-weeks-old article on MSNBC on how bad it is for survivor morale to have empty cubicles seemed to be the the "something" that was going to present itself for today's topic.

This is, after all, a topic that - after all these years in high-tech - I do know quite a bit about.

Even after 20 years, I can still conjure up the image, not to mention the deathly feeling, of walking around the Wang Labs towers during its long and ugly death spiral (which, during my relative short time there involved at least a half-dozen major lay-offs).

Now, Wang, by the time I got there in 1986 was depressing enough to begin with, and the regular lay-offs didn't help. (Neither did the cost-saving initiatives like turning out half the lights and not picking up the trash every day - nothing like the sight of a communal trash bucket near the coffee machine, overflowing with coffee grounds, banana peels, and pizza crusts, to start the day off right!)

Most of Wang's white collar employees worked in cubicles, and most floors in their buildings (3 towers of what was intended to be a four-tower complex that formed the letter "W" when seen rom above) held rows upon rows of dreary little cubes.

Once the layoffs began, there were some floors that were entirely wiped out, and it was ultra-depressing to cut-through one of these on your way to a meeting. Make that ultra-dark and ultra-depressing: if they turned off half the lights in the active areas, they turned off all the lights in the ghost-town floors.

But it was even more depressing to work in an area that was full one day, and more than decimated the next.

During the last major lay-off I was there for, everyone in the cubicles surrounding mine was let go. I can no longer recall all the names of those who labored in our little pod - I didn't work directly with most of them - but Dick and Kevin, who were on my team, were gone; as were Debbie and Joanne, who abutted my cube. I had mixed feelings about Joanne's exit, I must say, as she had a) one of the most piercing voices I've ever heard, and b) a mouth so foul it made me seem like a Mother Teresa whose speech was reserved for praying the rosary. Truly, to this day I am still pretty much incapable of coming up with any good business reason why someone would need to use the "c" word, particularly on a regular basis.

Anyway, while I was reading the article on how empty cubicles are bad for morale, what to my wondering eyes did appear but a bit on what BzzAgent did when they had a lay-off and the consequent newly freed-up space. First, they pulled everyone together so that the gaps (and missing colleagues) weren't in everyone's face; then they offered their spare cubicles to entrepreneurs to use for free.

After 11 people lost their jobs due to downsizing at the end of last year, all the desks were centralized so there were no empty spaces in between workers. But that still left a section of empty cubicles in the office.

CEO Dave Balter felt the empty space distracted from the culture of his company. So he offered the workspaces to budding entrepreneurs in town for free —  phones, Internet and receptionist included.

"I had no jobs to offer, but I had space," he says.

Is this a great and generous idea, or what?

BzzAgent, if you don't know them (and I didn't, until now), is:

...a word-of-mouth media network powered by a half-million people. We pair consumers with products and supply digital tools that make widespread opinion-sharing easy.

They're located in Boston, just a mile and change from where I live. Too bad I'm not a budding entrepreneur - just a fully bloomed marketing freelancer.

Hey, Dave Balter, if you've got any cubes left, give me a shout!


vzlauter said...

It is nice to see a company that understands that it's not easy for employees that are left after a lay off.

So many companies treat employees terribly during good times as well as bad. This economy downturn with shift and employees will be in the driver seat again. Companies never seem to remember that!

michele said...

Hey Maureen,
Nice post! I work at BzzAgent, and I have to tell you that having entrepreneurs in the space, working on some very cool new products and ideas has benefited the company in many ways. We have been introduced to partners to help build an iPhone app, and tapped the brains of some of the new Hive residents for thoughts on product development. It's been a win all around.

jonoto said...

Hi Maureen,

I'm running this program at BzzAgent and would be happy to meet with you to discuss it.

Or let me know any questions you may have.