Thursday, December 6, 2007

Office Personalization

The workspace pictures in a recent post by Danielle on the Team BIOMASS blog (see the workspace pictures at the bottom) led me to think about office personalization a bit. I never have customized my work-spaces to a large degree, and I especially haven't put a lot of effort into "nesting", making my office a home (one might say that I've never put much effort into making my home a home either, but that's beside the point). When I worked at Nvidia it was a standard cube-farm, from the CEO down to the new guys like myself. Some people had computer hardware occupying all their shelving and stacked precariously up to the top of their cube walls. Others had varying degrees of personal decoration: miniature models of dinosaur skeletons or airplanes hanging from the ceiling, pyramids of soda cans, fish tanks. A few people had books. The most significant thing I did in this vein was draw maps on my dry-erase board (the longest-standing and most detailed was my map of Chicago's freeway system, but I also drew maps of Elmhurst, Paxton, Champaign-Urbana, Bay-Area cycling routes, and a few diagrams of highway interchanges). I and several others in my group also constructed more outward displays, and manipulated others' cubes, but I'm talking here about "nesting", not low art.

Because my group wasn't working on graphics, and the features we developed were unknown to the marketing department and to most of our customers, we didn't have walls filled with bright posters and press releases trumpeting our work achievements. So the decorations of our little neighborhood were naturally more drab and sparse, but probably more personally substantial, than those of many others. It's probably also more typical of what cube farms look like in most industries less "fashion-like" than consumer computer hardware (this post goes briefly into why the tech industry is fashion-like; I explained this to some co-workers at Nvidia and they largely agreed, so this one isn't just me being a weirdo... that said, none of the people involved know anything about fashion, so we may mis-characterize it).

Anyhow, now I work at Mintel where we have an open floor plan. It's similar to a computer lab, except that it's slightly less dense, we each sit at the same desk and computer every day. We have a little bit of drawer space that doesn't lock. There are no walls to hang posters on, just a few wooden poles extending to the ceiling. Because there are only a few of those, they hold, if anything, only items that the group would unanimously agree upon. Now, here's the thing: even though there's little space, little nesting ability, and no privacy in an open floor plan, I actually think it's better than the cube farm. Cube walls are a barrier to communication, which is important in much software development work. For what you lose in ease of communication, you don't gain much relief from distraction. You can still hear phone calls that other people make, but because those people have an illusion of privacy provided by those walls, they make long personal calls at full volume. The open office has a lot of background noise, but people are sensitive to this and keep their conversations at a low volume. I don't typically find myself distracted by the noise at work, and frequently do find that I can contribute to nearby discussions.

So the open office is great for productivity, especially for people that work in groups on projects and don't need a lot of outside communication. And it allows businesses to pack people into a smaller space, which saves money and energy. What's lost is privacy at work and the ability to nest. My dad is a lawyer and has a full office; he can use that privacy not just to call clients and bang out long documents, but also to take care of occasional personal business. We meet from time to time, often if I need something from home that he brings in from home, and so he calls me on my office phone. I think I'm one of the few people in my department at least that ever receives personal calls on my office phone, or ever has a personal visitor come up to reception. Where he works that kind of thing is more normal. And I think my style of office goes along with the trend of where work is going (particularly in computer programming): almost all time spent during work hours is focused and productive, many inside contacts, few outside contacts, very few personal contacts. What's interesting is what comes up in place of personal nesting at work. There is a great degree of socialization within the department, both during and outside of office hours. And we keep very reasonable work hours, with very occasional long nights, which gives us time at home to take care of our personal business and pursue outside interests. In addition, since more people today have cell phones and other portable communication devices, they rely less on employers to provide means to stay in touch with the outside world. In fact, the situation for outside communication is better for workers that don't have phones at their desks; they use their cell phones any time they have a break. Although this doesn't apply to me at all, people's personalization of portable electronic devices may fill the space of personalizing workspaces.

For young people that live in the city (most of my department fits this description) I think it's a good trade-off. And young people are taking this deal. I've read that in Japan some large companies are trying to bring back the atmosphere of long hours, lots of corporate spirit and devotion to the company (including big drunken corporate parties), and seniority-based promotion that encourages long careers. And young people, largely, aren't biting. They would rather get their work done quickly and define their lives outside somehow. And I think lots of us aren't ready to say that the path we're on now is the one we'll be on forever.


Danielle in Iowa said...

And I would hope most of us aren't naive enough to think that the company that we start working for now might even be around for us to retire from!

Audrey said...

interesting that you seem to like the openness.

when i worked in cubicle world people were too noisy for me to concentrate and/or they liked to stop by my cube (or sit on it) and talk to me. i would have preferred physicial barriers to keep them out.

Al Dimond said...

People bother me constantly during work but it's mostly OK because my work requires collaboration and is mostly quick, short-term stuff.

When people need to get big, individual things done they work from home... I am certainly not going to claim that the amount of money saved by the company on office space is not a big motivating factor in our seating arrangement. Responding to a need for a quiet, private work environment by saying, "Use your home!" is sort of cheap. It relates to what's called the "ownership society": people own their own things instead of relying on business or public infrastructure. Various groups accept private and public (in the wide sense, so that employers fall under this banner) ownership of various things varyingly. Yes. But overall I think the current trend is towards private ownership. There are problems with this for workspaces. First, they really inhibit in-person collaboration by taking workers completely out of the office on some days. Second, they don't work well for people without a good office space, such as people that have a family at home during the day.

The current situation for programmers suits young people better than old, city dwellers better than suburban commuters, people without families better than those with. This might be true in many other fields as well. This is one reason that programmers often become managers as they age... unfortunately that's not an option for me, since I can barely manage myself. Argh.

heatrose said...

dear al,

some of my coworkers prod me to decorate my cubicle, in which the only decorations are papers i like to have visible for what i'm presently working on. three or four things tacked to the walls at any given moment, and whatever i'm using strewn about the deskspace.

but yesterday, yesterday everything changed! my cubicle is decorated!

and it's because of the Office Party!

there were stupid little centerpieces and table decorations. including little red and gold plastic drums, about 5cm in diameter. i reappropriated one. it is now my Official Cube Decoration.

Al Dimond said...

Whoa, your office party had stupid decorations and tiny drums? That must have been immensely classy.

I hope some tiny drummer is not missing the drum. However, I should congratulate you on becoming Decorated.