"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cubicles–A Failed Attempt At Forced Collaboration

Office cubicles have never been a good idea – except for the businesses and government agencies which saved money by creating rat mazes without windows, doors, or ceilings.  The Ronald Reagan building in Washington, DC has always been considered the office worker’s worst nightmare, for it is floor upon floor of dimly-lit, crowded, airless, and hopeless spaces that confine, depress, and demotivate workers.

The irony of all this is that there actually is a rationale cooked up to justify this purgatory – that an ‘open office’ where workers can more easily communicate, will contribute more to teamwork, group associations, and productivity.  This thinly-veiled excuse to save owners money, has, of course, not worked.  Employees are dissatisfied with the noise, the lack of privacy, and the animal clustering; and have begun to speak up.  What is most amazing was that senior management either bought into this perverse scheme or promoted it vigorously and dishonestly.  I remember the Directors meeting at my firm where a move to a new building with the new configuration was soon to take place.  The Senior Vice President’s job was to explain the theory behind cubicles, and to enlist our support in convincing the lower-level staff – the ones who would be placed in the dark maze – that it was a good thing; and that both they, our Department, and the company would be better off. 

There were two survivors from the Ronald Reagan building in the group. After hearing the SVP’s pitch and the silence that followed, he stood up and said, “With all due respect, the Ronald Reagan building was sheer hell, and anyone who thinks that reconfiguring an office to mimic that soulless animal warren, is misguided”.

John Tierney has written an ‘expose’ of the cubicle culture in the New York Times (5.20.12), although anyone who has worked in an office in the last ten years needs no new revelations.  In any case, Tierney addresses the unhappiness, the issues that cause it, and the technological covers that have been increasingly put in place to keep workers happy and under control http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/science/when-buzz-at-your-cubicle-is-too-loud-for-work.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

The walls have come tumbling down in offices everywhere, but the cubicle dwellers keep putting up new ones. They barricade themselves behind file cabinets. They fortify their partitions with towers of books and papers. Or they follow an “evolving law of technology etiquette,” as articulated by Raj Udeshi at the open office he shares with fellow software entrepreneurs in downtown Manhattan.

Headphones are the new wall,” he said, pointing to the covered ears of his neighbors. Cubicle culture is already something of a punch line — how many ways can we find to annoy one another all day?

‘Speech privacy’ was the major element cited in a recent survey as the most irritating and unacceptable consequence of the open office.  Both the loud jabber of ‘noisemakers’ and the impossibility of having any more than a perfunctory conversation without nosy eavesdroppers hearing every word were cited:

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of “speech privacy,” making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

“In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices,” said John Goins, the leader of the survey conducted by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. “The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy”

While the barriers of file cabinets, coatracks, tropical plants, and knickknacks – obvious psycho-social cries for privacy and individual space – were never heeded, noise levels got management’s attentions.  Noise meant interruption of the work process, lower per-worker productivity, and lowered corporate performance.  The answer, of course, was not to address the underlying issue – the failed concept of the open office – but to retrofit it to take care of the noise.

Lately the complaints are being heard by the right people, including managers and social scientists. Companies are redesigning offices, piping in special background noise to improve the acoustics and bringing in engineers to solve volume issues. “Sound masking” has become a buzz phrase.

When Autodesk, a software company, moved into a an open-plan building in Waltham, Mass., three years ago, it installed what is known as a pink-noise system: a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voice.

A truly American solution.  Technology again saves the day, mollifies restive employees, makes them forget the Workers Hell devised for them by greedy capitalists, and allows them to get back to work.   What millions of snore sufferers have sought for decades – a sound suppressor that really works – is now deployed in offices.

The more debilitating effect of open offices is the issue of privacy.  Whereas most people get used to noise and deal with it more or less effectively, few can do without the social intimacy required for most human relationships.  The issue is not being overheard when you coo with your lover over the phone; but when you discuss issues of corporate management, the seditious but critically important exchange of ideas which contribute to real improvement

Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices. “Everyone is still experimenting with ways to balance the need for collaboration and the need for privacy.”

One could argue that the cubicle was designed by management-oriented architects exactly to prevent that kind of seditious speech:

[Management] says they sometimes get useful ideas from overheard conversations (italics mine); but also find themselves retreating to a bathroom or a broom closet for private chats. When they have to discuss a delicate matter with someone sitting next to them, they often use e-mail or instant messaging.

‘Useful ideas’ are not all they are listening for, to be sure.  Open offices also make it easier for a discipline-minded boss to cruise through the warren to find out who is screwing off and who is actually working.

Despite complaints like this around the world, the open-plan design remains the norm, partly because it is cheaper and partly because many managers believe the plusses outweigh the minuses. It is especially popular in workplaces that require continual informal collaboration, like newsrooms, trading floors and political campaign offices (Italics mine).

This is a disingenuous statement if I have ever heard one.  How many ‘newsrooms, trading floors, and political campaign offices’ are there in the United States.  And how many dry, impersonal, 19th century assembly-line cubicle offices?  And of course cubicles are cheaper, and of course managers feel that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Now, in the convoluted logic of those perpetuating a bad idea, this nugget of insight has been found:

Paradoxically, a bustling office can be less distracting than a subdued office.  Many offices are now pin-drop quiet, thanks to silent ventilation systems, the demise of clattering typewriters and the victory of e-mail over the telephone. With so little background noise, cubicle dwellers cannot help overhearing anyone who does dare to start a conversation.

So, the logician/theorist argues, cubicles are good for you because they generate the ambient noise that will keep you from isolating individual conversations, compulsively listen to them, and be less productive.

Another solution has been ‘The Little Room’:

Office designers are experimenting with layouts that give workers quiet places to retreat. One common tactic is to set aside a small room for conversations and phone calls. But sometimes the room is monopolized by one person who seizes it to work in all day, and other times the room is barely used at all.   

However, one consultant commented, “People feel self-conscious, as if they’re retreating to the room to hide something or to talk about some problem.”

This is not the paranoia that the expert suggests.  Employees in those little rooms are in fact talking about issue they don’t want anyone else to overhear.  Of course some more civic-minded employees use them for legitimate purposes and do not wish to annoy people in the cubes, but the need to retreat, collectivize, conspire, and share gripes is very real.  The truly mutinous meetings are not held in little rooms but reserved for noisy bars (in Washington especially where avoiding being heard is an obsession), but the seeds of dissent often arise in innocent meetings. 

I often had my team meetings in these retreats and although we were only discussing the progress of a project on which we all were working, the subject of poor senior management, corporate organization, or personnel issues almost always came up. Whether we convened for professional reasons or not, important gossipy tidbits and observations were a part of the discussion, and never would have occurred in the cubes.

Management, at least in my office, was savvy enough not to make these little rooms and our Directors’ offices – larger spaces on the front of the building with big windows which let in the only light available to the cubes – soundproof.  Since the walls to the cubes were glass, anyone who walked by and saw the team huddled a bit more closely than usual, knew that we were conspiring.

And as a final insult to the hard-working minions who labor at professional sweatshop proposal mills for twelve hours a day and dirt wages, consider this:

Another example of that in-between space is the booth, which office designers have recently appropriated from restaurants. At the East Village office of What If, a consulting firm, people who want to chat can retreat to diner-style booths at the edge of the communal open space.

“There’s something very satisfying about a booth,” said Barrie Berg, the chief executive of the firm’s American operations. “You can see what’s going around you, and people can see you, but you can still have a private conversation without disturbing anyone around you. We’re a culture of people who work better with a buzz around us, but that buzz needs to be manageable.”

Are you kidding?

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