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Friday, October 16, 2009

Splendid Open Office-ism

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”
Robert Frost

The last time I sat in something that resembled and open office plan but with cubicles, I had an ashtray stacked full of cigarette butts next to me, plastic coffee cups spilling over the side of my wastebasket, a fully stocked bar in my desk, and had to share my desktop computer with the person sitting next to me. Suffice it to say it’s been a long time. In fact, over the years, I have grown so unused to the idea of sharing my work space that my primary reason for choosing the last two places of employment was based on this criterion alone. Yes, I actually turned down jobs at companies that proudly boasted of their open office plans and instead chose agencies that had the old school, civilized, quiet, private and individually allocated office space, with a door. And this is where I have been hiding for the last fourteen years of my career. Now, back from a year long sabbatical, I find that not only are all the job offers I am getting from open office style companies, but even my previous employer, the last bastion of old school advertising has decided to go the open office route…I have nowhere to hide. So I took a deep breath, accepted a job offer and will now have to face the inevitability of an open office after years of carefully and deftly avoiding it.

Most people feel some sense of trepidation when starting a new job because they won’t know anyone, have no established track record, or because they will have to prove themselves afresh to a new boss and group of people. These are all good reasons to feel some healthy sense of fear on your first day at your new job. I found myself worrying about none of these things, but did feel like I was about to be tested like I have not been in a long time. Not because I was changing roles and doing something completely different from my core experience and something well outside my comfort zone, in a place where the average employee age is around twenty-four years or that I was about to face a huge learning curve in a very short period of time. Nope. My only fear was that I was going to have to sit in an open space where I was going to have to share my personal work space with other persons. Share my thinking space with other thinkers, my eating space with other eaters – this was my one and only concern.

First day at work, I admit find that I love the wide-open space, the floor to ceiling windows, the light filled rooms and the glass door conference rooms; even though I am unable to get any work done during the day. However, as my first week progressed it began to dawn on me that the open office might have a number of amazing bi-products that are rarely ever mentioned when people wax eloquent about all the positive aspects. The following, in no order of preference or importance, is the list of three positive things that might one day be attributed largely to the consequence of working in an open office; which some might argue will make up for all that loss of productivity.

The first that comes to mind is the effect this style of office will potentially have in reducing the obesity rate, while simultaneously increasing dining etiquette. Since the vast majority of people in our generation no longer have the time to sit and eat in the company cafeteria or go out for a leisurely lunch anymore, we are all forced to eat at our desks. Which in an open plan also means that we have to be mindful of the fact that not only are we are eating in the open, but also openly in a space filled with our co-workers. No longer does one have the luxury of quietly shutting the office door, in order to loudly chew one’s food, or eat while gawking open-mouthed at the latest breaking celebrity gossip on TMZ. One has to be on one’s best behavior and put one's best table foot forward or risk having to bear the brunt of our shortcomings being known, publicly. And with cell phone video recorders and other such devices at arm’s length, the word publicly also has all sorts of new and global connotations. As if this is not a big enough reason to applaud the open office, there is a greater one yet. We are now forced to be more conscious of what we are seen putting into our mouths and therefore into our bodies, now that it is in plain sight of virtually everyone in the office.

Every day I notice people hesitate to pick up that slice of pizza or cheeseburger in the cafeteria. I can see them think about what their office mates will make of their junk food addiction or say about them behind their backs. It seems to be giving people pause where they once used to just dive hand first into the fried food bar every day, devoid of guilt and freely exercising their right to choose. So, while we can all mourn the loss of this precious freedom and kick and scream about it, we should not underestimate or overlook the long-term benefits that come with the loss of one’s ability to make one’s own dietary choices – a less free but healthier you.

The second benefit, also greatly overlooked in my opinion, has to do with the positive impact it is going to have on the environment. All because office printers are no longer surreptitiously tucked away in some dark corner of some dark hard to find room. Instead, they are proudly placed in wide-open spaces, in full view of a large number of prying eyes. All of whom are just waiting to out those people who feel compelled to print every email they receive, every internet article they want to read, and especially those perennial printers who send hundreds of pages to the printer, and then rarely ever come to collect them. Yes, all you wasters and tree killers out there beware, for your paper wasting days and ways are numbered. Additionally, the rain forest also benefits from a massive reduction in the number of Post-its used (sorry, 3M but your lead product’s days are also numbered). We no longer need to rely on these little bits of paper, to leave non-phone related messages for people. In part because during the last round of cost-cutting most companies got rid of all their secretaries, assistants and support staff, considering them non-essential. And partly because there is a now a new way to deliver these messages.

Allow me to demonstrate by example how this plays out in an open office setting, based on my personal experience. The other day a person stopped by to see my cube-mate, who happened not to be at his desk. Of course, I had the option of pretending that I did not notice what transpired, but that takes some skill and practice in an open environment, and one that I have yet to master. And this visitor made it even harder, since they decided to mutter loudly (and supposedly) to themselves, “Oh, Joe Bloe is not here.” Now, even though I had my back to this person I could not help but hear them muttering, which naturally made me turn and look for just a split second. That split second was all it took for this visitor to make rapid eye contact with me and then proceed to make me feel guilty for potentially trying to ignore their presence and dilemma.

So what option did I have now, other than doing the polite thing and offering to take a message for my missing cube-mate? I admit that this, even if the correct thing to do, was terribly distracting and a led to losses of productivity, as it happened six times that day alone (approximately six minutes of productivity lost). However, I did take consolation in the knowledge, as I am sure will you that I had personally contributed to six post-it notes not being used in the world that day. Which led me to quickly calculate that if I were to take three messages a day, minus time lost for weekends, public holidays, vacation and sick days; I would be able to save one tree every three years. Which no doubt makes up for the six months of lost productivity during this same time period.

The third benefit society will gain from this wonderful new open world is the eradication of those time wasting and productivity sucking gatherings at the famed water cooler. Gone forever are those days when you and your co-workers mingled, while gaining and dispensing hot office gossip along with cold filtered water. It’s hard to gather when your boss is not only potentially watching, but quite possibly within earshot. In fact, we are also no longer encouraged to walk over to one another’s desk like we used to, in order to follow up on something or just catch up on your colleague's last weekend trip away or their kid’s third birthday party; we are asked to IM (Instant Message) directly from our computer now. We no longer need to leave our seats in order to break bread while getting work done. Along with the loss of these old office rituals we will also see the office gossip, that one person in every office who always has the juiciest bits of information on everyone, soon become extinct. It’s hard for gossips to survive when there is nowhere to gossip and nobody to share it with.

Another thing that is frowned upon is people making or taking personal calls at their desk. We are encouraged to leave our desks and walk over to a small private room or an empty conference room to have this conversation. Given that there are only two such phone rooms and up to one hundred people on each office floor, and most people will not take up a whole conference room (with glass doors) to have a personal conversation, it effectively prevents us from having any type of remotely personal conversation during the day, or to face the risk of being overheard by your immediate neighbors and chastised by your superiors.

Hooray for efficiency, technology and a complete loss of productivity - I am sure our Master Houyhnhnm will be proud!