April 20, 2015

"It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies."

Writes Lindsey Kaufman in a WaPo article titled "Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace" about the time she "was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table."

Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life.  All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.
The most horrific part of that is "loud music."  Later:
If employers want to make the open-office model work, they have to take measures to improve work efficiency... And please, let’s eliminate the music that blankets our workspaces.  Metallica at 3 p.m. isn’t always compatible with meeting a 4 p.m. deadline.
Jeez. Any music interferes with the kind of thinking you need to do to write. Of course, hearing other people talking is bad too, and the right kind of music can be used to exclude voices. Ten years ago, I worked hard on putting together a music-for-reading playlist. I've deployed Brian Eno many times — even to work in my office (which is not impervious to the sound of people talking in hallways and other offices).

Kaufman ends with "companies could simply join another trend — allowing employees to work from home," and that's my preference for most of the work I do. You can get deeply attached to quiet if you have access to it and learn how much it helps. When you're reading and writing, there's no music at all that's better than silence.

38 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

Thank you for the link to your previous post -- a wonderful read.

As for work music: Neu!'s "Hallo Gallo" on repeat works wonders for steadiness in approaching a deadline. Can't beat German Motorik.

I am Laslo.

tim in vermont said...

I worked in an office like this for a while, an office the size of a large, very large, dairy barn. Only HR had private offices, meeting rooms all had glass walls. You didn't even get the same 'desk' every day, you sat down where you could find room, and entered a number into the phone so your calls would find you, then put your laptop into the docking station, and started working.

I described the noise of that place as a "thrum" I got that word from a Kurt Vonnegut story, I think. Then I started working from home and I had a nice private office again.

Kevin said...

Any study I've seen is that workers are a minimum of 20% more productive if they have an office with a door they can close.

It's a power and status thing - every business and governmental office I've seen that has open-plan offices for the serfs has private offices for the important people.

Laslo Spatula said...

"It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies."

I have to admit that, from this headline, I was hoping for a 'different' kind of article.

I am Laslo.

Hagar said...

The CEO at Avis wrote that Muzak is only appropriate in workplaces where mental defectives work.
Or something like that.

Years ago, I had been out sick for a couple of weeks, and when I got back, found that the boss had installed Muuzak in the ceilings. I stood it for almost 2 hours, but then got a stepladder and a pair of pliers and cut the wires to the two outlets nearest my partitioned space.
The boss came by and saw me, but just went off grumbling something about some peoploe being impossible to please.

Ann Althouse said...

"I have to admit that, from this headline, I was hoping for a 'different' kind of article."

I meant to do that.

Hagar said...

From then on, one of my co-workers had a lot of fun gradually raising the volume in the rest of the office and seeing how high he could get it before it got through to me and I started yelling at him.

Jonna & Rob said...

I hear these same kind of complaints from 8 year-old Chinese kids making iPhones.

It's a tough world out there.

mccullough said...

Open space businesses are cults. They might as well pump the Horst Wessel song over the speakers

bwebster said...

Research studies in information technology going back at least a few decades have showing significant improvements in productivity and quality of output when workers are given individual offices. This is why -- some 25 years ago -- I insisted that all engineers have private offices in the software startup I was part off.

The 'open office' concept is often justified by claiming improved communications among workers, but as far as I can tell, it's mostly just an excuse to pack more people into a given area at less expense. There are times in software development where it helps to have a 'war room' setting -- something we did set up at that same startup during the last few months before we shipped product -- but everyone still had their own office.

Sebastian said...

"there's no music at all that's better than silence"

But most homes aren't "silent." They're just full of noise we don't notice. Sometimes I have to shut it out by, yes, playing music. Some people use white noise - vacuums etc.

"Research studies in information technology going back at least a few decades have showing significant improvements in productivity and quality of output when workers are given individual offices"

Panopticon has uses other than boosting "productivity."

Glenn Howes said...

I subscribed to a kickstarter called "Music to Code By", whose intent is to get you in the zone for productive coding. Perhaps that would be appropriate. In the day when I worked in an office, I tended to listen to a lot of Enya.

When the company I worked for got acquired, we all had a semi-open office layout, so all the engineers on our team all had our backs to each other. It wasn't horrible and nobody cared what was on your screen or when you headed out.

Of course, now I work at home, and life is good.

YoungHegelian said...

@mccullough,

They might as well pump the Horst Wessel song over the speakers

Comparing corporate managers who opt for open offices to Horst Wessel is just so unfair to Horst Wessel, who at least had the decency to get himself offed by some commies in an argument over his apartment rent. Sadly, such management rarely gets offed by commies or anyone else.

Oh, and what Kevin said about productivity.

Hagar said...

I kind of object to the term "software engineer."

For real engineers and drafters it is essential that they learn what goes on a drawing and how in their particular discipline, and this is something that the schools can only teach in a general and rudimentary way. You have to go through an apprentice period and learn from your elders.
These days, that is not just about what is going on the drawings, but also how to - and how not to! - work the wonderful machines and bottomless programs that enable you to do things you should never ever do.

Seeing Red said...

Lolol. Google -search engine -and no one decided to search how open open classrooms fared from the 70s? Get ready for moveable walls or renting more space.

Idiots. But the have money to burn.

tim maguire said...

Jonna & Rob said...I hear these same kind of complaints from 8 year-old Chinese kids making iPhones.

It's a tough world out there.


Yeah! Check your privilege! Only the most oppressed person in the world gets to complain. Everybody else just shut up, already!

jelink said...

It's been a while, but when I worked in Japan almost ALL the workspaces at the big companies I visited consisted of a big room crammed with desks and phones.

Even The Boss (generally a Division" or "Section" Head) sat in one such desk at the far end/corner of the room.

Cubicles were a rarity, and separate offices non-existent, except for the CEO and the other Big Boys.

Balfegor said...

I like the Japanese-style workspace, with the long desks, all together, actually.

I have my own office, but I always enjoy when for projects, the team is in a conference room all together. When an issue comes up, I don't have to pick up the phone or send an e-mail or something, I can just ask someone who is right across from me. It is a bit oppressive, I guess -- it helps enforce the Japanese norm that no one leaves the office before the boss -- but I'm fine with that. It disciplines me. I prefer working out of the office's lounges and conference spaces to working out of my own office, frankly.

Also, can't have music piped in -- that's just ridiculous.

lemondog said...

Added reason to dislike and eschew Google.

And piped music..aaaargh!

On the other hand, excepting the hideous colors notably the washrooms, the work desk arrangement is not as bad as envisioned through the article.

Still there is no reason to undislike Google.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

I call this stuff 'the tyranny of the extroverts'.

No introvert would EVER propose an open office.

Funny, we introverts easily understand the needs of extroverts, and make accommodations for them, but they never do the reverse.

Guess that makes us the better persons.

Open office is a disaster for the introverts, and often they can be some of the most productive workers.

The open office is an insane idea, poorly thought through. The persons recommending it should be fired for incompetence.

Balfegor said...

Re: Someonehastosayit:

I think associating "open office" with extroversion runs into one big problem -- the cultures in which "open offices" predominate (e.g. Japan) have significantly more introversion than the US norm. By US standards I'm extremely introverted. In Japan, I fall more towards the extroverted side, even if I'm not exactly a mood-maker.

lemondog said...

And it could be worse.
Jack Lemmon office scene from The Apartment

Coupe said...

I once shared a foxhole with six other guys. Six bastards who had way too much gaseous food for 12 days.

One bastard kept shooting the damned machine gun, and I said: You're going to give our position away!

Then he pointed down, and I peeked over the edge, and 40,000+ Siberians were running down the valley swinging swords.

We all jumped out of the foxhole and ran so fast we were well into the second echelon before we stopped running.

At which the Siberians met their fate against the cannons of the Tiger tanks.

traditionalguy said...

She is complaining that she now has a peer group being her Super Visor.

The Boss must not trust them to be adults.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

The open office is not new, whether modeled after a quiet library reading room or a noisy factory floor.

On WRKP, Les Nessman had his solution to the open office problem, invisible walls.

David said...

Always suspect the trend.

campy said...

"It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies."

Keep your rape fantasies to yourself, dearie.

EMD said...

People need time and space to do great things.

Technology is a distant third.

Their coworker jabbering next to them is 7,233,128th.

tim in vermont said...

@lemondog,
The scary thing is that is an actual office. That is way before they could have done it with photoshop for movies.

rhhardin said...

Nerds like to work in the same room. Women tend to stay away.

walter said...

"It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies."

Clearly needs to experience that reference. I guess the Nazi analogy has been deemed unacceptable.

grackle said...

I guess I will be in the minority on this. Bosses need private offices but workers do not. Bosses need privacy to reprimand, review and other actions that workers should not be able to observe.

As a worker I always preferred to work in an open space, until I became a boss. Why? Because I wanted the boss to be able to see who was working hard – which was me and a few others. Of course production figures should tell a boss most things a boss should know about a worker's job performance but I think many bosses are more impressed by what their eyes tell them daily rather than by production numbers. I often saw production ignored during performance reviews, raises and promotions. And open spaces cut down on workers' wasted time due to conversation not having to do with the work.

holdfast said...

It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.

Fifty shades of cubicle wall-carpet grey.

lgv said...

I hate open offices. Hate them. I never wanted people watching me and I never wanted to see other people either. Tall cubicles are OK. Short cubicles are almost as bad as open. Open offices don't facilitate work communication as much as social communication. If you need to communicate, you communicate, whether there are wall, doors or nothing.

"The 'open office' concept is often justified by claiming improved communications among workers, but as far as I can tell, it's mostly just an excuse to pack more people into a given area at less expense."

Partially correct. As a business owner, open offices are great, because it costs a fortune to build offices and you lose flexibility. When building offices, you have the cost of walls, doors, wiring, weird ceiling tile cuts, ducting for every office, more sprinkler heads. Our space has a mix of large cubicles and tiny, narrow, closed door offices. Given a choice, the employees always choose the smaller office with a door over the larger cube.

paminwi said...

The giant medical records company, Epic, keeps building and building all so their employees can each ave their own office. There are many, many open spaces for group meetings so you can do that if you want. They seem to be doing fine with all of "our" money since they generally only go after government $ since it is a guaranteed income stream. (So sayeth our Epic tour guide)

Ask them how many private medical providers they sell their services to and you will find they are in the Madison area since they want to be seen as "good community" members.

Joe said...

As a computer programmer, I've worked in all kinds of office setups. I personally like a nice, quiet, private, office. However, I've found that cubicles with five foot walls which lead to a common "hall" with the rest of your team are the most productive. I find it remarkable how much you learn from other technical conversations.

The only negative is that there's always one or two busy body hypocrites who tattle on coworkers for what they say, and then proceed to do the very same thing. (Most recently, the guy caddy corner to me complained to my boss that "I was talking too loudly to a recruiter." First, this is the same guy who talks extremely louder than anyone with his boss and second, I'm a contractor so, duh, I talk to my recruiter. Funny thing is, nobody else cared.)

ken in tx said...

I recently learned that AT&T in Austin was going to an open office arrangement. My first thought was that they must be trying to downsize and want people to voluntarily leave, retire early, or find another job.

Mom2Es said...

Those Google offices look like a preschool.