Open Space And My Quest To Buy A Book From Barnes & Noble

Click on the image to go to BuzzFeed and read  24 Reasons Your Open-Plan Office Sucks.

Click on the image to go to BuzzFeed and read 24 Reasons Your Open-Plan Office Sucks.

Yesterday I wrote a [meandering] post about moving people around in an agency in the effort to encourage collaboration with folks you probably see every day, but you usually don’t talk to.

The logic is that more collaboration and creativity will spark if you engage in spontaneous conversation with someone you’ve seen around the place, but just don’t chat with regularly.

Then, in the midst of searching for just the right photo for my post, I got caught up in another topic that gripes me and it is the concept of Open Space – via a lovely piece in the National Post about a book called Cubed and how the lame concept of no walls fails to make anyone more collaborative.

Sorry for the tossed salad of topics yesterday. So to clarify: 1.) moving people around is dumb and a waste of time; and 2.) open space is worse.

So today is about Open Space – and a couple other things.

There’s nothing like reading something that validates one’s opinion (based on having actually experienced it, mind you) in a respected journalistic setting. And Canadian to boot.

As I said yesterday, yes I actually had to listen to a coordinator explain Fireball shots to her mom over the phone. I had work to get done. I only wish I could have been in on the call because this woman just wasn’t gettin’ the whole gist of Fireball shots.

I wanted to crawl through that iPhone and say, “Fireball is cinnamon-flavored whisky – that’s a form of alcohol, honey, you drink it in one gulp – and by the way, you’re making me crazy. Understand fast because this call is OVER.”

But I didn’t. I did what every other person in any Open Space Agency does. Put on headphones, logged into Pandora and listened to Tom Petty.

By the way, Fireball is Canadian too.

Barnes & Noble Tangent

So, I read the article, I went online and ordered the book to pick up at my local Barnes & Noble. I planned to read as much as possible last night and wow you with enhanced knowledge, but alas, my $17.38 purchase came through, confirmed via text, that the price in store is actually $26.95.

Oh, mon dieu. I went to B&N, asked for my book at the counter and said, “I have a question.” The clerk responded immediately with, “We charge the full price, not online price” . . . as she put the book back on the shelf. They have my name, email address and phone number. Good Job. I retraced my online steps, and sure enough, missed it. The real price was there in the final step. I was just so thrilled to validate everything I know about Open Space I was blinded.

So I came home and ordered Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace from Amazon, free shipping and it was even cheaper than B&N - $17.04. Ha!

Back to Open Space The Saga

Since I didn’t read-up on everything I know to be evil and true about Open Space, I’ll share some of the highlights of the article.

About cubes

“The irony of the cubicle is that it was designed to save workers from the kind of chaos of what was essentially an open-plan setup,” Mr. Saval said in an interview . . .

About the return of Open Space

“The first time it’s tragedy, the second time it’s farce,” [Saval] said of this concept, which was prone to complaints about noise and distraction. “They’re repeating the same mistakes they made in the 1950s when the Germans introduced the more open flexible landscape. It’s sort of silly that that’s happening… there’s some dishonesty and bad faith in it. It’s obviously cheaper to cram more people into less space.”

The problem with Open Space is that everything is a distraction. Collaboration happens either in meeting rooms or collaboration spaces – which are usually booked – or off-site at Coffee Bean (okay, Starbucks too).

So why build all those meeting areas and collaboration spaces when you can just create real office space so people can get work done? As my experience in an old-fashioned agency back in the ‘90s clearly demonstrated – everyone had an office. With a door. And there was constant collaboration going on within those offices. Just because an individual has an office doesn’t mean he or she is going to sit in there and work alone. It’s just not the nature of the agency business. We collaborate and then we get some alone time.

We need that time alone. Great creative ideas do emerge when we can just sit and ponder on the problem. Awesome solutions don’t happen when you’re distracted by your desk-mate getting their voicemail on the speaker phone. As noted in the heavily commented piece in the New York Times, “Headphones are the new wall.”

There is one thing worse than Open Space. That’s hotelling. I’ve done that too. Bad idea devised by cheap bastards.

Bottom line, it’s either management’s brilliant idea to create serendipity, or an effort to cut the cost of overhead. Perhaps it’s one in disguise of the other. Creepy.

But you know, we still get the work done anyway.

Hooray for you guys! Now let’s shove-off with some Tom Petty – who isn’t Canadian.

Moving Things Around And Trying To Create Serendipity When People Actually Like Just A Little Routine

I’ve encountered, read, been a part of agencies and marketing departments, where management gets the brilliant idea that moving people around to different desks and tearing down cube walls will get them out of their ‘ruts’ and start talking to – oh, wait no – collaborating with other people. Creating Serendipity.

This is plain dumb.

I first experienced this at an agency in Portland in the early ‘90s. The partners had visited an agency in San Francisco or New York or some other esoteric advertising mecca and saw first-hand how teams were assembled. Account, creative and all support staff in a team - sitting side-by-side. Because in those agencies, those teams were actually assigned specific accounts (so it worked for them, I guess).

The partners were so enthralled, they decided we needed to do the same. This would surely spur creativity. Get more clients. We had a meeting! We had champagne! We had to clear out our offices and move our crap.

Well, half the employees had to.

Our agency was on three floors. The move was a giant pain in the ass. Fortunately I was a PM and my boss said that all PMs had to stay put in their offices – near him. He was a partner who knew better.

Well, some creatives moved upstairs, some downstairs – the same for account – and eventually, we didn’t know where anyone was.

But the thing that was so telling was that the creative folk kept getting together in each-others’ offices, as did the account folks. You see, they had their routines; they had their trusted collaborators to bounce ideas off; they had their confidants to discuss jerks in the office, husbands and boyfriends, and where to meet for drinks after work.

Everyone still did what they did before, with the people they always did things with. Now, it was just more inconvenient.

Serendipity did not happen. The staff just got work done and life happened.

So quit moving people around. And for Gods Sakes, get rid of those group work tables and, at least go back to cubes with real (higher than 18 inches) walls. I do not need to hear another coordinator explain to her Mom that doing Fireball shots with friends is super fun.

Oh, and while on my journey to find a cool photo to accompany this post, I found this terrific piece on Cube Rage. 

The GIF is from the National Post by way of Office Space.

The GIF is from the National Post by way of Office Space.

The book mentioned in the article – Cubed – The Secret History of the Workplace – I’m buying it today.

Tomorrow’s post will surely be about Open Space.

Office Noise, Or Jammin' To The Beat

when I use headphones.jpg

I have a beef with the idea of “open space”.

More collaborative is what the creative geniuses say.

But can anyone tell me why everyone who is trying to get something done is wearing headphones?

So much for collaboration . . .

And can you tell me why my colleagues thinks it’s okay to take ALL OF THEIR PHONECALLS ON SPEAKER?

Even voicemail.

Then there’s the guy, and I love him to death, who’s jammin’ to the beat, all the while his chair is squeaking . . . to the beat. And he doesn’t know it because, yes, he’s wearing headphones so he can concentrate.

So now we’re all in our own little worlds wearing headphones.

And don’t get me started on the temperature. Why all the blankets?

Now, let me find an available conference room . . .

The Remote Workplace & Yahoo!

I work from home. I have done so as an employee, as a freelancer and consultant.

So I know first-hand, the benefits of working from home – and working in an office.

Marissa Mayer, a new mom/CEO/and-everything-else-awesome, sent out the word that Yahoo! employees must now work in the office.

Now all this talk about open-concept offices and so-called ‘collaboration’ has me railing from time-to-time. You just can’t force collaboration, and I believe that employees need quiet space/time to concentrate.

However, collaboration isn’t as easy if your colleagues are working in different geographical areas. And all that crap about GoToMeeting being THE collaboration tool. I used it for years. It’s okay, but nothing beats being in the same room with your co-worker and being able to call him out on texting his friends about this lame meeting.

For Yahoo!, and Ms. Mayer, the ‘backlash’ has started. They’re talking about how it ruins families reduces productive time by 5 – 7 hours a week!, Ms. Mayer is trying to be more ‘male’, blah, blah blah.

Get this: I love working from home. I wear sweats, and no makeup. My days start early and end late.

Working from home gives me the option to work 12 – 16, or more hours per day without a problem. And did I mention that I hate to drive? I think the daily commute is the biggest waste of time we have in our daily workday. More on that later…

But, having worked remotely for an employer, I can say that when you have daily contact with your colleagues, you have a much better sense of how to work with them. Management has a better sense of you as a person. Those things keep you employed. You'll have a much better sense of expectations because frankly, you can’t hide.  An added bonus – you will develop enhanced radar and be able to detect when ‘changes are a comin’. Such as a corporate edict on working in the office. 

Yahoo! evidently has a big problem with flabby employees. Or so the articles elude. People call in, turn in work-product, whatever – and get a paycheck. Easy. Others pour themselves into their 16-hour day. Both are equal in the eyes of management. This change will shake-out the slackers, and I’ll bet, flexibility will still be on the table.

The article from Time states:

“Eliminating the ability to telecommute eats away at the core of what Yahoo, an Internet pioneer, and Mayer, a new mother, would seem to be all about.

Sure, working from home is what Yahoo! is all about.

…and closes with:

Technology has revolutionized the workplace, allowing people to do their jobs while still caring for a child home from school with the flu or on weekends and vacations when urgent matters surface. Yahoo has a respected place in history as one of the enablers. Turning back the clock can’t be the answer.”

Sorry, but there are two different points here. The ability to take care of a sick child and working exclusively from home are completely different. Just about every workplace recognizes the former as a part of having employees – with lives and families. Working remotely is not, in any way, the only way to achieve that basic flexibility.

I have watched this stupid debate for years. We work, we have families, and we continue to work. I have first-hand experience in this area and don’t see this change in Yahoo! as insurmountable.

I was a single-mom with two very young kids and worked as a freelance designer/illustrator. I tended to their needs and tried my best to do my work. From home.  It was either spend time with them during the day and work at night – or start and stop continually while trying to get just a half-hour of undisturbed work in.

I had to come to terms with reality. I had to work to make money so my family could survive. That meant I had to focus on work. I put my kids in – GASP! – daycare. I could no more afford an au pair than I could afford to jet off to Paris. So my two little ones got up early every morning and were delivered to a wonderful Grandma-type lady – who raised nine kids of her own. She was wonderful. I was lucky.

So in that environment, they lived, and so did I. They learned to socialize with other kids, had organized activities, were loved by their caregiver, and brought home the flu and pink-eye.

The downside during those years was the drive. I put – literally – at least 1000 miles a week on my car. I spent a lot of time in my car. Therefore I hate to drive now.

So as an experienced work-at-home person and work-at-work person all I have to say is: Go to work. Quit whining. Your kids will survive – your family will not die. Hone your radar. And if you don't like it, prepare your resume.

Open Space, Culture and Creating Collisions

I’ve said it before – I just don’t agree with this trend for an open office. It’s unproductive.

This article in Inc. Magazine, talks about Tony Hsieh and his comments on collisions, serendipity, or whatever. It’s a way to force people to interact with one-another by forcing them to enter, leave, or go to the bathroom by taking a different route past someone’s desk. Usually the desk of an individual with which they don’t have anything relevant to discuss – thus creating a collision that is, in my world, a disruption.

Or worse, a real annoyance. There’s got to be some balance here.

I don’t believe in collisions – you either have something to say to someone – or you don’t. Creating collisions it is like going to a mixer to find a date. That isn’t serendipity. It’s pre-meditated.

Although one comment in his article horrified me about Zappos – they lock all but one entrance, so they create collisions. I’m thinking that Mr. Hsieh made a misstatement. At least I hope so.

Anyway, serendipity is, in my book, a moment that cannot be contrived. Most people simply aren’t going to talk to one-another unless there is some compelling reason, like, “Wow Zach, that fedora really goes with those crocs.” 

At some point we just walk past a coworker, exchange ‘hi’s’ and head to the kitchen or kegerator.

I think the bottom line of what Mr. Hsieh is saying is – if you put people in close proximity to one-another, they will interact. Yep, I get that. And rebuilding our city core can create an awesome environment for serendipity. He wows me with what he has taken on.

I give him props for working to build another Austin or Portland, because I love them both - great creative cities. Heck, I grew up in Portland and I get it.

But please, unlock the doors and let me concentrate – because serendipity has occupied all the ‘quiet’ rooms.

The Drama of Creative Agencies or Something Like That

Okay, once in a while you just have to call someone out on their B.S.

Here you go.

So I’m a fan of Ad Contrarian, and checked the comments on his post about a particular agency’s landing page, and one comment had a link to Agency Wank.

Agency Wank takes screen shots of statements agencies make about themselves, posts them on his site, and then folks post notes (comments).

Well, one agency that was captured got very, very angry and invited the Wank over for a drink and a laugh, and – let me quote here; “Afterwards, I personally will kick the living s**t out of you. It’ll be a hoot!”


As a result, it looks like the Wank has taken a break – but the site lives on…

Well my take on it is this: First, if agencies wrote anything as pedestrian as what they actually do on their sites – without jargon – it just wouldn’t be…interesting. They bury the fact that they’re asking a simple question:  Use us because we do everything better than the other guy.

Second, anyone in an agency taking a comment seriously from a Tumblr site called Agency Wank, and inviting that person over for consumption of alcohol and a good shellacking is…a waste of time.


I think these two guys – I’m sure they are guys – could parlay this into some really good…promotion.

Forget Cannes. Instead we can have some sort of Agency Smackdown or Cagefight to ordain the best Agency Statement of Purpose Ever. The battle of obfuscation.


The stage will be set in an historic building with plenty of exposed brick, hip retro furniture, microbrews, and an open concept office so everyone can contribute - and collaborate on the win.

The reality of it all is that once you put it out there for the world to read, everyone has an opinion. Using tons of jargon is just asking for it.

So I just have to ask: There’s actually an ad guy without a thick skin?

Didn’t know they existed.

open concept offices

Once again there’s an article touting how cool open offices are. The examples in the article are in fact, very cool.

Do you work in an ‘open’ office? The kind that encourages collaboration, “where hierarchy has been ripped out, that makes everyone feel part of something special.”

Are you able to get work done? I know I’m not. And by the way, you’re not so special that I want to hear you take every call over the speaker on your phone.

In the article, What Makes a Cool Office? The answer to cool is It's more than just a billiards table and free soda. Design buffs weigh in on how to build a creative, collaborative, and innovative workspace.”

I do believe that an awesome workspace can inspire. I have worked in awesome and I have worked in miserable. And I have worked in the combination of the two. I love amazing architecture, new clean and modern, or historical buildings – each can possess an energy that is conducive to great creative collaboration.

So my issue is with distraction. No walls, no cubes, and lately, not even assigned desks. Everyone is portable all the time, sitting at the same table. If you want or need quiet you must either use headphones or take a walk over to the corner Starbuck’s / Peet’s / Coffee Bean. If you need to pull together a meeting, conference rooms – if they exist – are always booked.

Doesn't that tell you something? Your colleagues are either working in small groups off-site or have snagged one of the precious conference rooms.

And if you need to make a personal call, you have to walk out of the office.

So how much work do you actually get done in that cool office?

I worked in an agency in a historical building and everyone had offices. It never hindered collaboration. In fact, people were in each other’s’ offices all the time. They could shut the door and get work done, or leave it open – and we could always hear what was going on with open doors. Imagine that.

Then, I worked in an open office – which was quite large – and to mask conversations, ‘white noise’ was added. Nice. I had a white noise speaker right over my desk. It was deafening, and at 5:30pm when it shut off, everyone relaxed. Go figure. And as the one who had to follow-up on all active projects, the pure joy of having everyone within earshot – or in view – was a huge waste. My colleagues were usually out for coffee.

If you want successful open concept offices, here’s a challenge for your architects and space planners: make it cool, but please provide space where staff can really work.

Collaboration is not always a happy accident.  It can be a major distraction – for others. You can be a part of something special by being able to get your work done – at the office.