Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Oh, for the days of a good old private cublcle

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a mini-reunion of some marketing colleagues from my Genuity days. A few days before we got together, there had been an article in The Boston Globe on the new rage for open office workplaces.

At Genuity, the office assignments got shuffled around pretty often – we moved from Building A to Building B, we got reorg’d – but mostly, the offices weren’t terrible-terrible. Even for those stuck in cubicles, there were enough small telephone rooms that you could duck into to make a call. When I first joined the company, they were growing so rapidly, there was no walled office available, so they stuck me in a phone room for a couple of months. It was fine. The door closed; you could hear yourself think. Over time, I did find myself in a couple of progressively better offices. My final office there was large enough for both my desk and a seating area with a round table, where I could meet with four or so folks. When I left the company, I was scheduled to move to a new, much posher building, in which I would have had cherry wood furniture. It wasn’t enough to keep me around, however, and I volunteered for separation while the packages were still pretty decent. I wanted to git while the gittin’ was good. I gambled and lost, in that the lay-off packages continued to be good up until the end, and there were even retention bonuses for those willing to hang on while the company circled multiple drains simultaneously. But I wanted out, and even though I kind of pined for that nice cherry wood desk, it wasn’t enough to keep me there.

Overall, although I had periods when I worked in cubicles, most of my career was spent in an office with walls and a door that you could close. That said, I actually didn’t mind my stints in cubicles. While they tended to be noisy, the fact that you were surrounded by those Herman Miller walls gave you some semblance of privacy. Given my druthers, I always would have opted for a closed-door office, but cubicles – much as we complained about them – were tolerable.

But over time, as I’ve noticed at the couple of local clients were I actually get to see the space – most of my clients aren’t in Boston, so I rarely if ever see their digs – the cubicle walls have, in not come tumblin’ down exactly, been getting lower and lower. As they sak in “The Limbo,” how low can you go? Well, the answer is pretty darned low. Forget any semblance of privacy, things are going open concept, which was exactly what those awful offices looked like in the 1940’s: vast floor spaces, with rows of metal desks, cheek to jowl. I remember seeing pictures and thinking, what a nightmare. Now, when I see the modern offices, it’s a recurring theme. What a nightmare.

One of my former colleagues works for a company that is going fully open concept. You get your own desk, but it’s in a pen, where you can see everyone – and everyone can see you. Another has an even worse set up. Her company is going to a hoteling concept. Each employ is given a box on wheels in which to keep their stuff, and is assigned a locker to keep their coat in. When they get into work in the morning, they’re assigned a space at a communal work table. This is supposed to shake things up, get people to collaborate, move people out of their communications rut. For my friend, it means adding another work-from-home day so that she doesn’t have to put up with this utter lack of privacy, and the unsettling feeling that comes from not having a room space of one’s own.

It’s all part of the wide open space concept, where “focusing is difficult when you can see your colleagues’ every move and hear their every conversation.”

.Between 80 and 90 percent of office spaces renovated in the past two years have some sort of open floor plan, according to the architecture and design firm HOK. The idea behind ditching so-called cubicle farms is to encourage workers to interact, as well as squeeze more people into smaller spaces — a cost-cutting trend exacerbated by the 2008 recession.

According to the reports from my Genuity friends, one my age, the other in her late forties, they’re sold this bill of office goods as being what the millennials want.

Sure, the millennials are used to “anytime, anywhere” communication, and they’re big sharers, but, let’s face it, there are times when you actually have to do work that requires concentration. That you do on your own, and not with a raft of colleagues. That requires a private conversation. Or an animated phone call that might be distracting to our neighbors. (When I worked at Wang, the woman in the next cubicle was always conducting – in her strong Aussie accent and super-loud voice – a conversation that involved the use of words that are on farthest end of the acceptable-for-work-words continuum. This was thirty years ago, when f-bombs weren’t thrown around anywhere near as frequently as they are now, but I was always amazed when this woman tossed in the c-word. I’ve been to Ireland, so I know that there are countries where the c-word is common usage. Still, it was odd to hear it in the workplace, so regularly and pronouncedly. It was distracting, I’ll give her that. I was always hoping she’d put her call on speakerphone so I could at least here both ends of the conversation.)

In addition to at least occasionally wanting a bit of privacy at work, I will add that there’s some comfort in having the permanence of a work ‘hood in which you know your neighbors. So forget that hoteling. Some of us liked seeing the same folks day in, day out.

Inevitably, workers – including all those millennials who were supposed to love it so – are finding that open concept ain’t all it’s cracked up to be: 

In many cases, architects and designers agree that the movement has gone too far, hurting productivity as well as morale.

Boston area workers describe their company’s open plan as “overwhelming,” “exhausting,” and “part brave new world, part overstimulation, and part overcrowded ‘Brady Bunch’ bathroom on a school day morning.” An employee at a local software firm went so far as to fashion a homemade cubicle with posterboard around his new low-walled workspace.

Some are calling for the return of the previously loathed cubicle. Failing that, companies – or individuals - are coming up with workarounds. Like the one the guy with the posterboard barrier put in place. One software company in Boston’s trendy SeaportDistrict brody loungehas “installed 12 individual work stations surrounded by opaque panels on three sides — an in-demand new product from the furniture maker Steelcase called the Brody lounge.”

God almighty.

Where do you put your mug? Your kids picture? The New Yorker cartoon? Where does your buddy lean (let alone sit) when he comes by for a chat? How do you block out people walking by?

Maybe in twenty years, there’ll be no such thing as an office to go into. Everyone will telecommute. Or work for themselves, scrounging for whatever piecemeal, piecework jobs they can get. That is, if all the jobs haven’t been roboticized or AI’d away…

Glad I won’t be around to un-enjoy it.

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