There was an article in The Journal the other day entitled “The End of Management.” The article argued that, in the 21st century, business is going to have to jettison the Alfred P. Sloan approach to management that served so well during the transition from an agricultural environment to an industrial one, and develop a more agile, innovative, and un-bureaucratic approach to running things. Topic for another day, I’m quite sure.
What was most intriguing to me in this piece, however, was not its central argument. It was the picture of a 1950’s office:
No privacy whatsoever. No phones on the desks of most of “the girls,” as far as I can see. Not a personal item in sight. Plus half the people would probably have been smoking. Talk about an existential nightmare. (And I use to bitch when I was in a cubicle.)
I’m sure there were many a 5 p.m. clock-out time when I’d have had to make a last minute decision about whether to put the plastic, dust cover over my comptometer or over my head. (Breathe deeply; it’ll all be over soon.)
I’m trying to think whether you’d be better off at the front of the room with everyone’s eyes boring a hole in your back, or in the back, where you could see the vast, anomic expanse of fellow workers. (I’d have opted for front row.)
My first office job was in something similar, but on a much smaller scale. We sat at cheek-to-jowl metal desks in an open area, surrounded by offices where the bosses worked. This was at H.H. Brown Shoe in Worcester, after I’d been plucked from the factory floor and given an office job. My first promotion!
I wasn’t looking to claw my way up, but they needed “a girl,” and they thought I’d do because I wore glasses, and because I knew enough Spanish to tell my fellow combat-boot trimmers when we did or didn’t have overtime work on Saturday.
I went from $1.40 an hour in the factory, to $1.70 an hour in the office. And I could no longer show up at work in jean shorts, a tee-shirt, and sneakers. I was pink collar, now.
On my first day, I wore a turquoise cotton A-line dress, only to find that my first task was inking up a little hand-cranked, rotary printing press, and printing up piece-work coupons. Fortunately, I didn’t get any ink on my dress – just on my hands. And I didn’t get to work at my desk in the main room. The printing press was in a stuffy little room of its won.
After my day as a printer’s devil, most of my time was spent working a comptometer, calculating the piece-work pay for the factory workers. How well I remember the women in the office complaining about how much money the leather cutters made. (Probably all of $200 a week, if that. Not to mention that they had someone breathing down their neck all day to make sure that there was as little waste possible in the hides they were cutting down, the first step in the combat boot manufacturing process.)
I had a number of office temp jobs over the years. Sometimes I sat in the open. Sometimes in a cube. Sometimes in an office.
For my first post-B-School job, I shared an office, but much of our work – creating forecasting models – was done in an open, shared computer room, where we labored at paper-based terminals connected to a remote mainframe. When the computer room was humming at max, you were sitting no more than two feet from the person next to you.
This was, in fact, great fun, and I missed it when we all got screens and, a while later, personal computers, in our offices.
I eventually got my own office, and, following a promotion - gosh, talent outs, doesn’t it? – and a move to a new building, I found myself as the only woman with a window office, a fabulous, V-shaped room overlooking the Orson Welles Theater on Mass Ave in Cambridge. Great fun.
Alas, the great fun was short lived. Our little hippy-dippy forecasting division was swallowed up by The Parent Company, and we moved out to Lexington.
Now I had to drive to work – ugh – but at least I got a nice office out of the deal. In fact I got a very nice office out of it.
There weren't enough decent offices to go around, and they couldn’t very well stick the only woman on the team in a dungeon, so they gave me a double window office, overlooking a nature preserve. I was granted this office with the caveat that I might have to share it some day.
After that, depending on the company, I ratcheted back and forth between nice solo offices and dumpy cubicles.
Wang was the home of the dumpy cubicle. Picture that 1950’s office, with the miserable little desks divided up into miserable little cubicles and you get the picture. Only with sound effects: a paging system that blared perpetually right over my cube.
Next stop, Softbridge, where I generally had a nice office – until we got acquired by a company that enforced a top-to-bottom cubicle policy. We were grandfathered in, until we had to relocate.
Overnight, we went from all private office to all cubicle, and we had a collective, anticipatory nervous breakdown. Until we got there, and realized it wasn’t all that bad. This was mostly because we’d had a lot of say in how the offices were laid out, and we put in a lot of conference rooms, including a couple where you could hold a 2-3 person meeting or make a phone call.
My next stop was Genuity, and at my level I was entitled to a decent office. Unfortunately, when I started there they were in such gung-ho hiring mode that there was no place to put me. So I spent my first couple of months in what had been a telephone office for use by the cubicle denizens when they needed privacy. I departed Genuity before they moved fully into their fancy, pre-bankruptcy digs, where I would have been entitled to cherry wood furnishings. (No wonder they went bankrupt.)
At NaviSite, I served my time in a cubicle, which was actually quite fun, because we all chatted back and forth all day, or IM-ing with remote colleagues. That is, when we weren’t listening to a loud-mouth techie just the other side of my row. John seemed to be in continuous contact with his insurance carrier and/or car repair and/or home repair the entire time I worked there. How he got anything done is beyond me. As my friend and colleague, Jeff, once said: he could file this guy’s insurance claims.
NaviSite, while I was there, was a roll up of a number of (mostly failed) small internet services companies, with management plucked from the numerous roll ups, which were scattered cross-country.
Although they were only at HQ once or twice a quarter for a day or two, most of our sterling execs required exclusive dibs on an office, so the perimeter was ringed with offices that were unoccupied 95% of the time. We the people commandeered these vacant offices whenever we needed to make a call, have a small meeting, or just have a little gab-and-gossip fest. The execs could have gotten oh so many brownie points if they had given these offices up to one of their reports – even with the understanding that, on occasion, the premises would have to be vacated. But lookin’ good in the neighborhood wasn’t of interest to any of these folks – some of whom actually started to lock their empty offices when they weren’t there. (No matter: we had our ways.)
Nowadays, I call my home office home. Or office. Or whatever. It’s tiny – maybe 8’ x 5 ‘ (if that). It has a door, a window, and a cherry wood desk and file cabinet – much nicer than anything I ever had in corporate.
There’s a bit of socializing: I’m on the phone a couple of times a day with the folks I’m working with. It works, but some days I miss the good old days when I worked in the open office, the computer room, the cubicle spread, the office environment where we all came out of our solo offices to socialize.
But that picture from the 1950’s? It really doesn’t look like much fun, does it? It’s easy to imagine the punch-in/punch out clockwatching; someone hanging over you every minute of the day making sure your nose was firmly adhered to the grindstone. The regimented coffee breaks, the grabbed conversation moments at the water cooler.
Don’t think I ever would have missed working there.