Nine to Five

While I was in Mexico, I was reminded of the movie, 9 to 5. We were visiting the office of a client, an open plan office with hundreds of people sitting at long tables facing each other with a short, perforated screen maybe 6-8” high between each person and the person they were facing. From side to side, each person had maybe three feet of space, just enough for a large computer monitor, with no screen between them. At the end of every other or every third row, the supervisor sat at the end of one of the tables, a full-height screen between them and the person next to them. Maybe they had 4’ from right to left instead of 3’. And instead of facing a colleague, there was a space for a chair where someone could sit. Conference rooms encircled the room, with glass walls and perforated doors, interspersed with small offices, much smaller than the ones I had when I earned my first office, or the one that I was banished to when I had pissed off my boss and the VP of HR by being a little too objective about the timing of the new HR system’s upgrade in relation to holiday (and, even more unfortunately for my life over the next three years, being right about it).

Anyhow, you can see why I was reminded of 9-5. Open-plan offices have been the norm since offices were invented – think of the image of the old Barnes & Noble logo of the monk hunched over his desk in the scriptorium, madly copying with his quill. He wasn’t hunched over in isolation. The scriptorium contained rows of desks, with many monks madly copying.

But the office I visited was alive, like the office at the end of 9-5, not like the dead zone it was at the beginning. Each person’s 3-4 feet of table reflected their personality. Some of the computer monitors were gaily decorated (in honor of the person’s birthday, I was told, although most people left the decorations up for months). There was a hum of activity in the room, people scooting their chair over by their neighbor to collaborate, people standing in the aisles, sharing ideas. It felt vibrant and alive, like things were happening. Unlike an office I visited once in Atlanta where each cubicle was the same drab grey, with walls too high to prairie-dog over, no personality displayed anywhere, and so silent you could hear a pin drop. This Atlanta office was a call center, for goodness sake, but each person had a headset and spoke almost sub-vocally, and you could hear nothing. It was spooky.

When I was in grad school, we did an exercise where you pictured your office as a city and drew a map of it, describing the activities that occurred in each neighborhood. I drew the floor that I sat on, and described the dead zones where everyone kept their heads down and focused entirely on their computers, and the junk yard where people interacted with each other but were surrounded by huge mounds of things that kind of kept them walled off from the rest of the floor. And over here was the intersection where the main arteries of the floor came together and we were often glad that I ran into you because I wanted to ask you about this or that and 15 minutes later we had solved world hunger. Down there, around one corner and then another, was the executive ghetto, where our VP and the people who felt they had to be close to him sat, completely removed from our end of the floor where things actually happened. He used to say that my little area of the floor, where my team sat, felt like the back-room of a store – which was a complement from him because that was always his favorite part of his store visits — we were a little loud, a little irrelevant, we chatted while we worked, but we got a heck of a lot done. At the other end of the Executive Ghetto was the reception area, which the executives could cut through to get to the elevators instead of walking all the way back through cubicle-land. Except that was a risk because of the speed trap in the corner office who lurked about waiting for them to pass then called their names and put them on the mat about whatever they were doing and how much it was costing and why wasn’t it done yet and it was all just shenanigans. You could tell who was in vs. out by which route they took to the elevator.

Someone visiting that office recently commented on how the person they were visiting had filled the shelves behind her desk with toys. Toys! She was shocked but I wasn’t. The company has a growing toy business and many people there have offices filled with toys.

Another client in another country has a big, beautiful, light-filled building, brand new. Halls are wide, conference rooms high-tech, glass walls, an open staircase from the lobby sweeps up to other floors. It feels clean and bright, like a new penny. I keep saying the only thing it’s missing is a button that I can press to fold it up and slip it into my pocket when I leave. I’ve never seen the office spaces, only the conference rooms and the common facilities.

A third client, in another state, another culture, another office. When you step off the elevator, glass shelves house artifacts from their past, and awards the company has earned. Facilities – lunch rooms, service elevators, copy rooms – occupy the center strip of the building. On either side, communities of cubicles cluster, interspersed with sitting or standing areas where employees can congregate for those off-hand conversations. Conference rooms – never enough of them, anywhere I visit – are dotted around the building, and charmingly named in relation to the products the company sells. The cubicle areas are not loud but you can hear people talking; the walls are high but not neutral, covered in pictures of upcoming product campaigns. Although offices and conference rooms take up many of the outer walls, the cubicle areas are light and bright.

How you work, where you sit, what your office is like, affect how you work and what you get done. The women in 9-5 had it right – if you want to change the productivity of your team, map out your office like a town, figure out where there are marginalized neighborhoods, and what you can do to incorporate them.

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