Friday, August 01, 2014

Getting Ready to Have no Office

Macmillan Science and Education, where I work, is consolidating offices. New York offices at 33 Irving Place and 41 Madison Ave, along with one or two other locations will move into one building in Manhattan. Our company leaders herald the new office layout -- an open design -- as a campus, where private offices and/or personal cubicles give way to rows of computer terminals, scattered couches and chairs, maybe some tables in nooks and crannies, or small, fish-bowled conference rooms for meetings.

I work in Boston and once leases expire, the plan, we hear, for Boston will be as it is in New York and was in London: a move to a campus-based office model. In anticipation of that move, though it may be years away, I removed from my current office anything personal because campus offices eliminate the personal. I also removed work related materials -- manuscript hard copy, notes from meetings, scholarly books I own that I consult, books we publish, print outs, whiteboards and other workplace desiderata.

So now my office looks like this:

My office as it now stands. Once the whiskey is finished, the glasses will be packed in that white box on the low left shelf and the box will go home with me. The laptop is on a spare chair as a way to create a standing desk. 

Of course, when MHE sets up their campus offices, they'll supply plants, color, furniture, and other amenities, that, like a new library or student union on a college campus, will look contemporary and vibrant, designed no doubt for cross-colleague communication and serendipitous discoveries of new ideas. That's a key pitch for the campus version of the open office. And too as an education publishing company, operating on a campus metaphor resonates with the mission to foster research and learning.

In the campus office, employees share space, much the way that on a college campus the library, learning center or student union each provides open seating for students to use on their visits to those places. Visually, based on glimpses from similar MSE offices in London pictured in a company video, the offices resemble a fairly well appointed college student union or library. Here, take a look:
A shared computer area in an open office, where I believe any open terminal can be used by any person who needs it. Much like a computer lab on a college campus.

A conference room, a tradition in traditional offices as well. So nothing new, but often these are now designed so that walls are glass.

Little nooks where colleagues can work in semi-private in small groups or alone. 

Tables placed in places where there's room, borrowing from library design.
If you've been to a college campus in the U.S., you know that the images above all are like the kinds of spaces colleges provide to students and faculty: open, no assigned or named seating, workstations may be present, but laptops abound, students cluster where they will, classrooms, conference room, study rooms, nooks for two or three, supplement the commons areas.

If you've been to college campuses, have walked through areas like these, you'll have seen energy: students in conversation, small study groups at work in a conference room, fingers flying on keyboards, and the immobile work of quiet readers in lone concentration. The campus office hunts for that vibe. Whether it can capture it, I'm not so sure.

For when students and faculty go to those public spaces, they carry in with them only what they can carry out. They do not bring plants, nor photos of family or friends, nor art from their walls, nor mementos, nor cork boards or white boards, nor more books than can fit in a backpack, nor anything else that they might leave out or hang or use or keep in their their faculty offices or dorm room or apartment off campus. They cannot carry those things because there's no where to leave them. Their use of the space is temporary, impermanent, and random.

The campus work spaces that look like the images seen above are not, like a publishing office, used 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 hours a day, five days a week. On a college campus, unlike an office borrowing the design, open work stations, open seating, shared conference rooms and small group nooks are all temporary and interstitial spaces, way stations used on the way from offices/dorms/apartments to classes. Or, if in the library, used for short bursts, relative to where most time is spent.  (Though when deep into research that requires months of long days, the library can feel like home.)

Intermittent work in open, shared and public spaces, differs from working in office with a door one can shut for privacy and concentration, where there's a desk one leave work out on for more efficient resumption each morning,  and where small personal accoutrements -- art, plants, favorite pens, coffee cups or teapots -- make coming in a little more pleasant.  And so it's no surprise that some of the research (summarized here by Julie Beck in The Atlantic Monthly and here by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker) on open offices shows that productivity falls, workers become more stressed, and the office becomes a place employees are happy to not go to when they can arrange to work elsewhere.

I'm among those who will not do well in an open office, not if I need to spend all my time there. As amenable and contemporary as their design may be, with color, furniture, use of space, they are by design more impersonal, and thus despite their colors and comforts, colder places to work. By design a worker has no permanent place, no private place. I've worked in factories and other jobs where I've had no place, but for maybe a locker to hang and store a coat. And in all those places, workers were easily replaced, some less so than others, but replaceable still. Now publishing isn't factory work. The offices MHE proposes differ mightily from the noise, grime, and grind of machinery I experienced in my factory jobs. 

These new office models -- where a place to sit is make due, a place to talk quietly or privately is make shift, and that make no room for the personal installation of art, photos, awards, degrees, books, papers, plants, toys, and yes, a bottle of whiskey maybe -- reduce the sense of who people are. And by that reduction, reduce the sense that people belong. Right now, when I go through our current offices, even when a colleague's not at her desk, I can glimpse who they are, what their children and grandchildren are into from where photos are taken, the kind of work they do from what stays on their desk, the cultural references they know from their art and knicknacks, how they think and plan from the way they plot out their whiteboards, and so much more. I can know them better as people with lives outside the office and colleagues with skills and talents inside the office.

But in the new office design, if people are not there that day, not in, there will be no trace of them. No sense of them. And in that lack of trace, these new office designs make it feel to me like people who work there are more transient and replaceable than before. Because when folks are out of the office they are as gone from view as passengers in an airport lounge whose flights have departed.

In a review of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval, Jenny Diski describes vividly an open office failure:
Jay Chiat decided that office politics were a bar to inspirational thinking. He hired Frank Gehry to design his ‘deterritorialised’ agency offices in Venice, California in 1986. ‘Everyone would be given a cellular phone and a laptop computer when they came in. And they would work wherever they wanted.’ Personal items, pictures or plants had to be put in lockers. There were no other private spaces. There were ‘Tilt-A-Whirl domed cars … taken from a defunct amusement park ride, for two people to have private conferences. They became the only place where people could take private phone calls.’ One employee pulled a toy wagon around to keep her stuff together. It rapidly turned into a disaster. People got to work and had no idea where they were to go. There were too many people and not enough chairs. People just stopped going to work. In more formal work situations too, the idea of the individual workstation, an office or a personal desk, began to disappear and designers created fluid spaces where people wandered to settle here and there in specialised spaces. For some reason homelessness was deemed to be the answer to a smooth operation.
So I see the open campus office coming. Yet as resplendent as they may come to be, and as nice as they might be to visit, I cannot help but also see them as soulless and empty. Which is why I've decorated my current office accordingly and only go into it when I have a face to face meeting. Otherwise, I work from home, or, when I travel to attend conferences or visit colleges, I work from airports, from hotels, and yes, from the campus libraries and student unions my offices back home will soon come to imitate.


LengelCJ said...

I heart this post. Thanks, Nick.

Vivian Garcia said...

Great piece Nick!