The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Back to the Orifice

The problem with the post-pandemic “back to the office” push is that companies now want three different things from white-collar office workers:

  1. Spontaneous in-person teamwork.
  2. Virtual worldwide collaboration.
  3. Individual productivity.

It’s easy to create to a workspace that supports any one of these three modes of work. It’s hard but possible to create a workspace that supports two. But no workspace can support all three at once because they make radically incompatible demands. You can’t put people in a shared space and ask them to be on Zooms and calls all day without making that space unusable for anything else.

You optimize for spontaneous in-person work by putting people in the same physical space. You optimize for virtual collaboration by putting them at computers and having them talk to each other on calls and Zooms. And you optimize for individual productivity by putting them in distraction-free environments. I hope you see the problem. Sharing a physical space with other people talking all day is the opposite of a distraction-free environment.

Once upon a time, some people worked in individual offices. They could focus on their own work, or they could pick up the phone to talk to a supplier or customer. Individual offices had (2) and (3) but not (1), which was fine because everything was always dull and boring. Meanwhile, other people worked on trading floors. They could shout across the room to a colleague, or pick up the phone and call a client. Trading floors had (1) and (2) but not (3), which was fine because if you had to think slowly and carefully about anything you weren’t cut out for the job. And then executives got obsessed with fostering radical collaboration – or, some would say, with cutting costs – and they pushed white-collar workers out of their individual offices into open-plan offices. But it was still fine, because these cubicle farms still had (1) and (3) but not (2). Yes, everyone was in a shared space where Bill Lumbergh could drop by at any time, but they could still get their TPS reports done, because most of the other people in the nearby cubicles weren’t talking to their computers all day.

Then the pandemic hit. Everyone scattered to their homes, hastily converted into some semblance of home offices. But – miracle of miracles! – Zoom made it possible to replace in-person meetings with virtual ones. Like individual offices, home offices had (2) and (3) but not (1), which was fine because no one else was coming into the office anyway.

But then something else shifted. Companies got a taste for virtual collaboration; employees learned how to connect to Zoom and turn off the cat filter. The virtual meetings that had been a pandemic necessity turned into a baseline expectation. Of course you might be expected do do your scheduled checkins by Zoom, or jump onto a call at any time of day. That’s just how things are now.

And so, when companies asked everyone to return to the office, the open-plan office was the same but the work was not. Now that everyone was supposed to be yammering away on calls all day, a space that had been just barely supporting (1) and (3) was being asked to handle (2) as well. Something had to give, and of course it was the thing that always gives: people’s ability to hear themselves think. An arrangement that had been suboptimal but stable blew up once the pandemic made Zooms routine.

Meta’s attempt to create a “noise-cancelling cubicle” with acoustic barriers between desks is a belated recognition that shared space, virtual meetings, and deep focus cannot coexist. But there is something ironic about the effort Meta is putting into separating its employees from each other. There is already a kind of a space you go to where you can do your own work or take calls in private, without being distracted by other people’s noise or distracting them with yours. It has four walls that go to the ceiling and a door that closes.

It’s an office. You invented an office.