On the way to the train back to university after a Christmas break, my son stopped by my workplace in Toronto’s downtown banking towers to pick up a last-minute loot bag from Mom. As I walked him from reception to my desk, his eyes widened in wonder. He said it was like in the movies: cubicles as far as the eye could see, a large clock hanging from the ceiling every so often.
He was initially awed, but as the image sank in, I think it turned to shock. The shop-floor environment threw cold water on his picture of the glamorous life of business. But neither he nor I foresaw what was to come.
Those aging cubicles were large enough to put your briefcase underneath. You could back up your chair to get up without hitting your neighbour. You could stare into space, thinking, without looking into your office mate’s face, as she did the same thing. Each desk had a telephone and drawers for pens, staplers, paper clips and files, as well as a computer. There was a coat closet, and the partitions enclosed enough of your teammates’ noises, smells, personal calls and pairs of old shoes to let you think you still had dignity.
By 2010, the influence of Silicon Valley’s unstructured approach to work had led corporate managers to rethink workplace design. Urban sprawl had created barriers to travelling to a job, and working from home became a privilege for some that also reduced operating costs through space reduction.
Now, employees in the banking towers battle their way through traffic gridlock, overcrowded subway trains and clogged sidewalks where commuter hordes collide on their way to work. But the stress of getting there is small compared with the work of getting down to work.
Senior staff still have offices, or luxury cubicles, but most employees and contract workers have no assigned cubicle or desk. To obtain a workspace for the day, you have to register online up to two weeks ahead on a complicated system that offers workstations on a map of hundreds spread across an array of floors. Your reservation may be overridden by some more important person.
There is no computer waiting in the reserved space – you carry your own to and from work or leave it in a locker arbitrarily located nowhere near where you might end up sitting. There are few phones, which is good because then the computer and a notebook wouldn’t fit, but bad because most meetings are now on the phone as meeting rooms are scarce, widely scattered and cryptically named.
After moving into this brave new world, my colleagues and I reacted by reaching out to one another to try to book seats together. However, the half-hour a day this collaboration took proved too much to add to our long workdays, and was lower on the survival ranking than tasks, deadlines and e-mails.
We are left with one important thing missing in the modern office design – our teammates and friends. While there are gathering places romantically called “café” or “oasis” that provide hot drinks, a fridge and a place to eat lunch, we can no longer call to one another over the partition, or stand together by our workstations, or chat as we take off our coats and set up our work. We don’t know where our work mates are each day. We don’t know who the people are in the lunch room.
And so the apparent objective of the designers was achieved: We gave up and sat at our desks all day, working alone on our “knitting machines”. But then, many of us found a way out of this bleak struggle – by passively or actively ignoring the booking process.
Now, it is wonderful to see encampments of people descending on the same cluster of desks every day without booking. They sit and work together as they need to, and count on management being too busy to do anything about it. What is even cooler is that personalities of all types have found a way to join this rebellion. Shy workers timidly ask to stay beside the person to whom they feel closest; bolder ones refuse to move. Over time, the new grouping becomes an institution and the joy of being part of a team prompts others to ask if they can join. Then the decorations return – family pictures, plastic figurines, workplace awards, cartoons – and we’re back to the quirky human condition.
We’ve still given up on finding the conference rooms, though. We dial in to meetings from wherever we can, exchanging glances as we listen in. The best part is we can now instant message our subtext to one another freely during meetings. Finally, we’ve discovered a benefit of the new world office design.
After his first exposure to cubicle life, my son decided not to go into business. The scales fell from his eyes about the lives of sit-down knowledge workers. Today he is a doctor, and we are all better for it.
Originally published in The Globe and Mail
Want to read more? Here’s an article from from the New York Times – Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired.