The office: home away from home?
There was an article in The Wall Street Journal the other day on “the perfect office.”
I didn’t pay all that much attention, as my days of lobbying for/ reveling in/bitching about my office space are in the rearview mirror. Today, I define the “perfect office” as one in which I don’t have to go out in bad weather to get to, don’t have to listen to the guy in the next office yell at his insurance agent, and don’t have to worry about office politics. It’s called a “home office,” and I have one.
But I did log considerable time in offices – some more or less perfect, others far less so.
My first post-MBA office was shared with a complete and utter paranoiac workaholic. Although I was never able to quite exceed his devotion, and never came anywhere near his level of paranoia, I quickly got into workaholic mode. And quickly workaholic’d my way into a private office.
It was tiny – you could only roll the chair back about 6 inches. But it had a door. And it was mine, all mine.
It also had extremely thin walls, through which at one point I overheard two managers arguing about me. We were in the throes of one of our recurring re-orgs and everyone was jockeying to flee Manager A’s team to work with Manager B, who was a much more pleasant fellow altogether. Manager A was fighting mightily to retain me on his team, and I was touched to overhear his closing argument: “You don’t want her. She knows nothing about ‘X’.”
Which was true, yet absolutely did not endear me to Manager A when I was one of the few folks stuck with him – especially given that he was THE ONLY manager in the company that followed the review guidelines that stated that “all managers must give all employees at rating of 3 unless they’re really terrible or really great.”
Come review time, everyone who reported to Manager A got a “3” - and a crappy raise. Everyone who reported to Manager B through Manager Z was rated a “1” or a “2” and pulled down larger raises.
We were not amused.
I may have known nothing about X, but Manager A knew nothing about playing the game.
I actually grew quite fond of Manager A, and was sad to see him laid off, on a day in which I lost my manager, the only person who reported to me, and my about-to-be-released product. Shortly thereafter, I also lost my office which, by then, had gotten pretty nice.
The company had moved across the street to a newer building and I was awarded a really cool office with excellent window space. As a bonus, it had an odd pie-shape to it. At the time of the move, I was the one and only woman to get a window office. (I could thank Manager A for lobbying for me, but it was really our office manager, who doubled as HR, and who was dipped if she were going to engineer a move in which NO woman got a window office.)
I loved that office, and was bummed when “they” – our parent company – closed down our wonderful Cambridge outpost and moved us all out to their new building in the ‘burbs.
By then I was reporting to a woman who, when we first met, had told me that she only wanted to have good-looking guys reporting to her – which, with the exception of me, was actually a dream come true for her: all the men in our group were pretty cute.
The options at the new building were sharing a window office or having a private, inside single. All the cute guys wanted to have inside singles, so I rolled the dice on a shared window double, which I was granted as long as I was willing to share it as needed.
So, they moved in a second desk, which I covered with an Indian print spread, and there it stood for the remainder of my stint at that company.
Somewhat irrationally, I ended up fleeing this place – one of the only companies I’ve worked that’s still in existence – for Wang, where I was not only windowless, but office-less as well.
Welcome to cubicle city.
I was a Level 27, and Level 27 techies got offices, but Level 27 product managers got cubes.
Mine was under a speaker that blared all day, paging senior executives – Paging Dr. Wang! Paging Dr. Wang - and guys from the shop floor. (The Wang offices were attached to a factory building.)
Oh, what fun!
Thus began 2 years, 7 months, and 18 days – but who’s counting? – of sheer misery (other than for the folks in my group, who were great fun to work with).
Among other miseries, Wang had started cheaping out on the cubicles themselves, and had stopped ordering doors for them.
Now a cubicle with a door may sound pretty ridiculous, given that the cubicles were only shoulder high, but it at least offered a modicum of privacy.
My cube was door-less, but for Christmas my first year, my wonderful techie friends commandeered a door from somewhere.
The cubicle was emblematic of my overall Wang experience, but the least of it.
To get out of Wang, I took at 20% pay cut for the promise of working for “The Next Billion Dollar Software Company.” This was late in 1989, and we were going to be the next Microsoft.
Depending on which way you looked at it, we either achieved $40M in revenues or $7M in revenues (this is another story, of course) before imploding.
But until my final days at Softbridge – when we were forced into getting religion on cubicles by our new owner – I always had a private office, generally with a window.
My first office was pretty grim – interior and, when I started, had a phone with no cord and no computer at all. Softbridge was growing rapidly (on someone else’s dime, of course) and had no time to worry about niceties like equipping offices.
On Day Two, I brought in my own phone cord, and on Day Three, when I realized that they’d just fired the sales manager down the hall, I had a computer.
By the time Softbridge and I parted company, I was a VP, but my window office was a thing of the past.
We’d been acquired by Teradyne, adherents to the all cubicle religion. When our lease was up and we had to move offices, we got religion and converted, too. Not completely, of course. Teradyne tried to force feed us with some cast off, shabby, retro cubicle set ups, which we politely declined. We went with all new, which, quite naturally, convinced the big-wigs at Teradyne that we were foolish spendthrifts, focused on stupid stuff that didn’t matter, and that we really didn’t deserve to exist. (Another another story…)
Anyway, when we made our move, in addition to having brand-new cubicles, we paid a lot of attention to making sure that we had a good office layout and plenty of conference rooms, including 2-3 person meeting rooms. It was actually one of the nicest overall offices I ever worked in.
My next move was to Genuity which, depending on how you looked at it, achieved revenues of plus-$1B or minus-$1B.
When were spending all that money we didn’t have, a lot of it went into offices.
As at Wang, there was a quasi-strict hierarchy around who got what kind of office but, fortunately, as a director, I was on the receiving end of office goodness.
My first office was pretty bad, though. Like Softbridge, Genuity were hiring so crazily that they had no place – other than what was supposed to be a phone office to be used by cubicle-dwellers – to put me in for a brief while.
But once I got my “real” office, it was quite spacious.
I didn’t get a window – you had to be a VP for that, and I never achieved that illustrious height. (Another, another story, delivered with my signature punchline of the time: “I’d rather have people asking why I wasn’t a VP than asking why I was.”) But my office was large enough for a conference table and well-located.
Just before I left Genuity, the company – by then in its final throes, with widely audible death rattling – had just built a swank new headquarters building. Among the other niceties for directors: cherry-wood furniture. My one regret on leaving Genu was that I never got to sit at one of those nice cherry desks.
At NaviSite, the last outpost of my corporate career, I sat in a shabby cubicle that would have been exceedingly depressing, if not for the neighbors on my small corridor, who were just great.
One peculiar aspect of Navi was that the cubicle-land inhabited by the great unwashed was ringed with vacant window offices reserved for visiting VP’s. Navi, at the time I worked there, was an agglomeration of small failed Internet services companies. A number of senior executives from the rolled-up companies were kept on as VP’s and, when they blew into corporate HQ for their quarterly visits, they were all entitled to a window office. Since they were in meetings the entire time they were there, it seemed absurd to allocate them each a window office which they used primarily to hang their coat and leave their briefcase – if that. But it meant that us cubicle denizens generally had a place where we could go to work privately, make a phone call, or gossip.
Ah, the perfect office.
In truth, there’s really no such thing.
The best office in the world won’t make up for a crappy business environment, and the worst office in the world can end up being more than tolerable if you’ve got decent colleagues and some interesting work to take care of in it.
All I know is that, when I was working full time, I spent enough time in the office to think of it as home away from home.
But these days, I’ll take home office any old time.