Private Office Blues: Why I Prefer Open-Plan Workspaces

Having his own closed work space in the open-cubicle world of 2014 has our columnist feeling uneasy.

Toward the end of his life, advertising genius and inveterate workplace redesigner Jay Chiat once told me, “People have to have places to hang their cat pictures. I get that now.” I don’t get it: I have no cat pictures. In my recently renovated private office—located in a 12-story 1920s building in Soho—there is a place for a chess set, some adorable family vacation photos, and four books on a table. Yet my interior decor delivers a deep personal dread that’s just now beginning to diminish.

The books tell a story of my unease. There is my little red English translation of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, with its pithy, impenetrable gems about the meaning of work and struggle. There’s The Six Sigma Way (also red, though not at all little) written in the 1990s by successful management consultant Peter Pande about the productivity-boosting methodology that transformed the corporate work ethic at the end of the last century. On a Kindle is the self-explanatory Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans by Simon Head. And the latest is Nikil Saval’s entertaining Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, which could also be called “The Decline and Fall of the Corner-Office Empire.” I seek any wisdom that might explain why having an office with a door I can close and lock—why having my own closed personal space in the open-cubicle world of 2014—fills me with an apprehension that has barely lessened in the months since this lovely space was cleared out just for me.

I am the host of a daily public-radio news program and there is no obvious reason why having a private office space—with lots of fun, little wind-up toys on the desk, personal pictures, and other icons to privacy, including an elegant wooden chess set—should make me so nervous. Yes, anything more ostentatious than a pledge-drive coffee mug is considered an indulgence in public radio, but my anxiety goes deeper. It’s a learned trait that is proving difficult to unlearn, and the chessboard is a step in my long march back.

Work spaces have evolved away from an expectation of spatial privacy where time can be spent on collegial recreation.

My chess set is visible through the window into the corridor and has been there for months awaiting a challenger. No takers, except for a tech worker on a temp job. He played a game with me one afternoon (and won), before going off to his next job rewiring the IT infrastructure in another workspace. One possible explanation for the lack of eager opponents is the abundance of chess books on my shelves and a digital chess clock that suggests a grandmaster is lurking about (I love chess but actually suck as a player). A better explanation is that our work space, like so many others, has evolved away from an expectation of spatial privacy where time can be spent on collegial recreation. There may still be friendly foosball tables at the Googleplex, but nowhere else on Planet Earth anymore.

I spend most of my time in the airless studio where my show is produced—a room with a soundproof door worthy of a blast shelter, behind a sheet of bulletproof-looking glass, where I’m stared at and ordered around by the half dozen people in the adjoining control room. Unlike my more leisurely looking office, in this prison cell, no one can ever argue that I am not doing my job. 

What’s going on here is a lesson Chiat learned a long time ago. The tension between communal productive space and private territory inevitably plays out in any office environment, including snazzy contemporary open cubicles with baristas on every floor. Private activity not obviously devoted to the company mission stands out. In my shop, I constantly see workers in corners and hallways having phone conversations not possible in their cubicles. Open-plan architecture, wireless connectivity, and the exploding new capability to monitor workers on the job have blown the doors off the private office. Private space has been pushed into the background—onto cell phone screens, private email windows, and  out-of-network Wi-Fi connections. Like electronic lingerie under the outward office casual decor, the private has migrated to an invisible interior.

Courtesy Basic Books

My personal anxiety goes back to working at NBC News in the 1990s when corporate overseer and General Electric CEO Jack Welch claimed that the employee reengineering program Six Sigma “has spread like wildfire throughout the company and is transforming everything we do.” Six Sigma’s emphasis on productivity outputs, measurable business goals, and “customer value” enhanced teamwork, but also germinated plenty of job anxiety. Was the customer for quality journalism our citizen viewers, or the companies buying ads on Dateline NBC? Could these “productivity metrics” actually trump other symbols of journalistic success, such as Emmy Awards, or the goal of making important issues part of public discourse?

Back in those days, I kept a chess set in my fifth-floor corner office at Rockefeller Center. My colleagues and I would play lunchtime games and talk stories. A chess clock made sure that we could finish up a game in 30 minutes or less, and it kept us engaged and socially connected in a way that didn’t involve complaining and office gossip. I thought it a genius way to improve office morale until, in 2005, my contract wasn’t renewed. That chess set in my private office became the symbol of how I had misread the corporate work space.

I pored over Six Sigma’s opaque worker platitudes for some explicit clues for what had gone wrong: “Identifying and setting dates for key milestones helps keep energy levels higher and creates a sense of urgency. Having team members commit voluntarily to the milestone dates—rather than imposing them—usually is preferred, but sometimes a little pushing is needed . . .” Had I missed my team’s key milestones because I was playing chess? Cut from the team, how could I have been a team player? There was only one conclusion. I had run afoul of the productivity targets. I wrote my own termination memo in guilt. The chess set was packed away in a box. 

Was this how Chinese workers during the Cultural Revolution felt after they had been purged? In the words of Chairman Mao, “People must adapt their thinking to the changed conditions. Of course, no one should go off into wild flights of fancy, or make plans of action unwarranted by the objective situation.” Like one of Mao’s self-critical cadres, I concluded that the chess set had betrayed my lack of urgency and exposed my “flights of fancy.” My new “objective situation” was finding a new job in the gathering storm of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

In this new era, speaking to colleagues about the weather becomes a form of “time thievery,” a term reportedly used at Walmart to describe collegial banter.

In Mindless, the techniques of Six Sigma look like a summer camp sing-along compared to what modern companies can do today to motivate and terrify workers with “Computer Business Systems” and popular monitoring programs like the “BSC”—the Balanced Scorecard. Author Head tells the story of workers at Amazon and Walmart who are compelled to use digital tools to monitor moment-to-moment productivity and to maintain their focus on company objectives. In this new era, speaking to colleagues about the weather becomes a form of “time thievery,” a term reportedly used at Walmart to describe collegial banter. Time thievery can actually be detected and measured with techie workplace programs like “Tasks Manager,” which might quantify someone playing chess during a shift as the equivalent of hijacking an 18-wheeler full of merchandise.

In this new era, speaking to colleagues about the weather becomes a form of “time thievery,” a term used at Walmart to describe collegial banter. These books convey the modern workplace as a narrative of civilization striving to balance individual happiness with collective prosperity. Employees steal time and printer paper in the struggle for security and personal dignity, while employers look to seamlessly assemble workers and machines into perfectly monitored engines of revenue. Mao, the Six Sigma folks, and Chiat formulate theoretically frictionless worker utopias only to see them seize up from the gritty sand of worker privacy and cat pictures.

Back in my little public-radio world, I’ve been surprised and heartened by how getting the chess set out of the psychological box and setting it up in my new office has tentatively felt like a revolutionary act. It has staked a public claim for personal space without compromising my productivity. It has forced me to confront anxieties about being a team player—something you can never objectively know anyway—and to commit broadly and deeply to the mission of journalism and public radio. The chess set visible in my office may say I have occasional free time, but it also says that the owner of this office is secure enough to make it look a little like home. With or without cat pictures, it says I am not going anywhere. Playing a game now would actually be a nice next step. I might lose, but achieving the goal of restoring a lost collegial humanity to my workplace could truly be one of those “lose-win” situations.

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