Office Space

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Over the Christmas holidays the company for which I work moved to an open workspace environment. It was an idea hatched by managers who weren’t going to actually have to sit in open cubicles, but I have to admit I don’t entirely hate the arrangement.

Traditionally office spaces are arranged so that management offices line the windows and the peons are jumbled together in cell-like cubicles in the middle of the floor, deprived of light, air, and a reason to live. The new open workspace reverses this arrangement: managers’ offices–dramatically reduced in number–are huddled around the central core of the building, while the cube dwellers get the windows and an extra level or two of managers dispersed among them to make sure the peons behave themselves. Cubicle walls are lower than before, or in some cases eliminated altogether, so that light and noise can flow freely over the newly emancipated cube dwellers. In effect, the cube peons gain sunlight at the cost of the last shreds of their privacy.

The cube dwellers’ renewed connection with nature, however, is only a tangential benefit of the open workspace. Corporations sell the concept of open workspaces to skeptical workers and middle managers as enhancing Team Work and Open Collaboration (sic). (In corporate written English, capitalization indicates importance rather than a proper noun. Redundancy is another indicator of importance.) But the real benefit of open workspaces is that they save Money. Offices are expensive and wasteful, as are the people who inhabit them, and open cubes can be arranged in pods, which are, basically, cubicles for four people.  It’s an efficient use of space, but horrible feng shui.

I’m a project manager, so theoretically the Open Collaboration environment should reduce the time and effort I need to browbeat people into doing work on the projects I manage. But as office environments have evolved, so have the people who work in them. My offshore development coordinator, who is responsible for making sure I know as little as possible about what’s going on in Chennai, sits in one of the dark slum sections of our office, so I have to make my way through a warren of desks to find him–then I have to find my way back to my cube, which a week after we’ve moved here is still a challenge. Plus, I’m starting to believe he changes cubes every few days. One particularly ingenious developer has avoided the increased surveillance of the open workspace by packing up his family and moving to Indiana, so he now enjoys that other newfangled form of office workspace: the home office.

Because I have to be physically in the office so my project stakeholders can harass me, I can’t work from home, let alone sneak an afternoon drink. But I got lucky in my cube placement. I’m near a bank of windows that overlook Wolf Point, where the Chicago River splits into north and south branches. The photo above was taken from my cube. The big green building on the left is Kohn Pedersen Fox ‘s 333 West Wacker Building, one of my favorite buildings in the Loop. My cube is small and gray, but throughout the office space the walls are painted in tasteful and subdued tones of red, blue and green. There are halogen lights everywhere, even in places where they’re not needed. Supposedly the space was created by the same people who designed Google’s open workspaces, and the whole place has a high tech, loft-like feel to it. Our office space is supposed to be green, so we’ve been issued LEED-certified water bottles, so we can retire the planet-killing bottles we’ve been using. I still don’t know where I’m going to display pictures of my kids and Walter Benjamin, but I’m working on that. Now, if I can just figure out how to get myself into an office.

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