Making the case for the return to an office

As employers and employees embrace working at home, how hard will it be to convince people to return to an open office? There are physical solutions as well as a larger underlying issue:

There’s a deeper question that needs to be solved at the heart of this effort to virus-proof the open office. What, exactly, is so valuable about working together in the same physical space? If the goal is to again nurture in-person collaboration, office design will have to find ways of making such face-to-face interactions feel safe and comfortable again.

The article has a lot of interesting suggestions about how the spaces can be altered to space people out or separate people. But, I think the larger question is more important: what will be appealing about the open office going forward that employees need a good answer for? If they can be productive from home, why do they need to go to the office?

There is a good argument to be made here for physical space. Social interaction builds up trust and familiarity. People talking with each other in informal settings can exchange ideas and spur creative thinking. Managers and companies may be better able to see what employees are doing and provide help and resources when needed. In general, good spaces matter.

It will be interesting to see how different organizations and sectors tackle this. I would imagine those that already have a looser corporate culture or different expectations pre-COVID-19 – think creative industries, some white-collar places, high concentrations of younger workers – will be more open to avoiding the office. Public health and perceptions of it will also play a role as employees and employers consider the risks of traveling, congregating in one place, and anxieties about all of that.

What will happen to those large, all-encompassing tech headquarters if employees can now work from home?

Employees in the tech industry may have more ability to work from home in the future:

Now that a large company like Twitter has announced the option to not return to the office, it will likely “drive momentum across the industry,” says Aaron Levie, the CEO and cofounder of Box. “Other companies look to those events as a signal for what they should do in their organization.”…

Not all companies are so eager to extend the work-from-home life. Employees at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino have been told they will start returning to Apple Park in phases, starting in late May. Apple’s security policies, meant to protect the company’s internal work, have reportedly made it difficult for employees to do their jobs while at home, especially if their jobs are related to building hardware….

Of course, Twitter is not abandoning the office altogether. In the wake of the pandemic, Box CEO Levie thinks bigger tech companies are more likely to take what he calls a “hybrid approach,” blending remote teams with in-office ones. “We’re still far from saying, ‘We’ll shut down entire offices,’” Levie says, adding that the realities of childcare would make it difficult for all employees to enjoy working from home permanently. “There’s a lot of power in people coming together, certain types of functions being able to collaborate in person, but there’s equally power in the flexibility and convenience of no commute and being able to work in a more efficient way.”

But other companies may reconsider the expense of office space, or at least downsize it, if enough employees choose to work remotely going forward. In 2017, Automattic—the company that owns WordPress—decided to give up its sprawling 15,000-square-foot office in San Francisco, because its employees never came in. For some smaller startups, this massive work-from-home experiment has made it obvious that they don’t need offices at all.

What does all of this mean for offices and headquarters and big campuses? The big office or work campus, such as those for Facebook, Apple, and Google, offers multiple advantages: the ability for people to meet, gather, and interact formally or informally face-to-face or in the same room; the company can know where everyone is; the ability for the company to control the work environment; and they are status symbols both for the companies and their communities.

But, working from home or away from the office also offers advantages: the employee is more in control of their immediate surroundings; there is limited commuting time; workers can connect via technology when needed and shut that off or limit contact when needing to focus; and expenses related to a big building are reduced.

And, as the article notes, the implications are huge for how organizations operate, what it means to be an employee, and for communities where businesses use land and pump money into the local economy. A more decentralized landscape for companies might reduce the need for cities to compete for headquarters (Amazon example) or even make the competition more cutthroat fighting over scraps. What happens to all that office space and how can communities fill vacant space in an era of budget issues?

For the record, I do not think the big offices will go away. At the least, they provide a physical reminder of the company and social interaction is different in-person than through technology. But, if a significant number of companies allow more employees to work from home, this could transform many physical locations.

Wide buildings ripe for use for wide-open workplaces

Several recent high-profile deals for large Chicago buildings suggests spacious floor plans are in:

The recent deals demonstrate how perceptions of those buildings and others with ultrawide floor plates, such as the Merchandise Mart and the former Apparel Center next door, have evolved. Long considered inefficient albatrosses, with too many large columns and not enough natural light, the buildings today are coveted by employers such as technology and creative firms.

Wide floors allow firms to have hundreds, or even thousands, of employees together on one floor. Open layouts and abundant meeting areas are designed to promote collaboration.

As a result, seven of the 17 largest new office leases in downtown Chicago since 2012 have been in buildings with floors of at least 50,000 square feet, according to a study by Chicago office leasing broker Matt Ward of Newmark Knight Frank. Those deals of 200,000 square feet or more include relocations or large-scale expansions within a building.

“This thinking of different floor, different planet is finding its way into every boardroom,” Ward said. “The idea of us getting out of our offices and being together is seen as a necessity in today’s business.”

The trend continues toward open floor plans where employees can interact and discuss ideas beyond their immediate isolated tasks, both theoretically leading to an outpouring of creativity and cross-pollination. This evolution of office design is chronicled well in Cubed.

At the same time, I have read about enough feedback from workers in response to these open plans to know that this is not universally beloved. The open plans limit privacy and inhibit focus. Some of the organizations that went to radically open plans later had to scale back to once again provide some more private spaces.

It would be worth going back to some of these wide structures in a few years to see how firms have organized the large spaces differently.

Americans labor/work in order to…

One day past Labor Day, some quick thoughts on why Americans work so much:

-We have the idea that hard work is a primary reason that people get ahead.

-We work because we need money. Many (not all) make enough to subsist even as the median income has been stagnant in recent years and working multiple low-wage jobs is seen as a badge of courage. Then, the money can be used to consume or buy the things we need to have to be up-to-date people (these days, a smartphone, flat-screen television, Internet access, etc.) or to assert our social standing. Or, we may buy things just because we like having a lot of things and we enjoy shopping and acquiring. Plus, much of our economy depends on consumer spending so people without jobs and money leads to some big issues for many economic sectors.

-We work because some like their jobs and want to use their skills and use their time doing something important or productive.

-We work to have an identity. No work = not being productive or not contributing to society. Either work or parenting (with a tentative guess that the first is ascending and the second descending) is the primary task of the adult life.

-We work to bank vacation days that we don’t use to the full extent.

Granted, I was thinking of this after teaching an Introduction to Sociology class the basics of Karl Marx’s observations about society. I paraphrased this quote from The German Ideology (pg. 12-13):

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

If we weren’t in this particular social economic system, how might work be organized differently to take advantage of people’s interest in creativity and production? How much of work today is freeing and leads to improvement of communities and the self?

Stores have cash registers, give receipts to prevent cashier theft

Megan McArdle explains that businesses don’t have cash registers or receipts for the good of consumers; it is to prevent cashiers from taking money.

The great innovation of the National Cash Register company was to market registers not so much as adding machines but as devices for preventing theft. Here’s Walter Friedman’s “Birth of a Salesman” on how these machines were made ubiquitous:

Because of the high price of NCR cash registers, sales agents had to convince proprietors that the machine would eventually pay for itself. NCR’s early advertisements resembled the contemporary flyers of life-insurance. In both, the aim was to heighten customer fear and uncertainty. In the cash-register trade, the fear centered on stolen revenue. One of Patterson’s advertisements, proclaiming “Stop the Leaks,” depicted shop owners ruined by clerks who stole from their cash drawers. This marketing strategy posed problems for NCR, because clerks and bartenders resented the implication that a mechanical “thief-catcher” was a necessary coworker. Some even organized protective associations to keep the product out.

In instances of intense opposition by clerks to newly installed registers, Patterson sent detectives to supervise the machine’s operation. NCR for June 1888 printed a letter from a merchant in Detroit whose store had been watched by an NCR-hired detective. “Your operative’s report relative to my man not registering is at hand. I was very much surprised, as it caught a man, above all others, I have relied upon, not only in the bar but in other matters in the house.”That’s why cash registers ring loudly when the cash drawer opens — so that a clerk with decent mental arithmetic skills can’t pretend to register your sale and then pocket the cash. And that’s why you get a physical receipt — so that the clerk can’t ring up part of your sale, and then siphon the rest into his own pocket.

In other words, NCR helped create the market for their goods by playing up certain fears. Friedman’s link to life insurance is an interesting one; sociologist Viviana Zelizer has written about how life insurance was once viewed as morbid but came to be viewed in the 1800s as a necessary provision for one’s family. This is like the cash register as the good businessperson has to have a cash register. It also sets up an interesting new source of alienation between companies and workers: the basic retail employee can’t be trusted with money.

One reason to look at the social history of products is to note how they are not objects humans inherently need. They are social constructions.

Facebook partnering to build a new mixed-use development for its workers

Here are a few details about Facebook’s plans to help put together a new mixed-use development near its main campus:

The planned complex, designed by architecture firm KTGY Group, is the first major housing development in Menlo Park in 20 years, and is expected to open in 2016. According to Deanna Chow, a senior planner in Menlo Park’s planning department, the city is largely occupied by single-family homes. This 394-unit residential community will be the first mixed-use development of its scale in the city…

While Facebook’s investment in the complex only extends to subsidizing 15 low-income units, Anton Menlo could very well become a “Facebook Town.” Besides its proximity to Facebook’s campus, the designers also kept the company’s employees very much in mind. A series of focus groups and electronic surveys gauging employees’ needs and desires translated into amenities like a “grab & go” convenience store, sports pub, doggy daycare, bicycle repair shop, and an “iCafe” filled with community WiFi zones, printers, and office supplies. Once construction begins, St. Anton will market the apartments to Facebook employees first before opening up to the general public. The developer is also working to establish a leasing office on Facebook’s campus.

Beyond concerns about Facebook employees becoming slaves to work or the beginnings of a community made up entirely of “brogrammers,” the project is actually a much-needed step in addressing Menlo Park’s housing strain. According to a housing fact sheet from the city, Menlo Park has a “jobs/housing inbalance,” with 41,320 workers but only 13,129 housing units…

On the plus side, housing employees close to work can help reduce traffic and gridlock. In fact, the Anton Menlo project aims to make several specific transit improvements. The Facebook corporate shuttle will be adding a stop at Anton Menlo. On a mission to get people home as soon as possible, the developer is working with the city to put in a bike path that runs directly from the Facebook campus to the new complex. Also in the works are separated sidewalks, crosswalks that light up to caution cars, and an underground tunnel linking Facebook’s campus to the apartments.

So, Facebook might help alleviate some housing pressure in a community that is difficult to live in but there will be questions about this being a “company town.” There are a lot of American companies that could afford similar actions. If they provide housing for their employees without being too controlling, two good things might emerge: (1) the workers might be more productive and (2) the community could be helped. Either way, it will be interesting to watch the outcome of Facebook’s real estate development activities.

While companies might get flack about providing housing, I wonder if developers and those involved in real estate are regarded more highly for their efforts to develop housing. For example, this 2009 Harris Poll regarding occupational prestige has real estate agent/broker at the bottom of 23 occupations. Developers sometimes provide big houses people want but they can also raise the ire of neighbors whose NIMBY hackles are raised.

Shared cultural interests leads to hiring at elite firms

A new sociological study argues having the right cultural interests or pursuing certain cultural activities can lead to getting a job at elite firms:

Big-time investment banks, law firms and management consulting companies choose new workers much as they would choose friends or dates, zeroing in on shared leisure activities, life experiences and personality styles, a new study finds…

As a result, evaluators described their own and others’ firms as having distinct personalities related to employees’ extracurricular interests and social styles. Companies ranged from “sporty” and “scrappy” to “egghead” and “country club.” One outfit even specialized in hiring people with drab personalities.

Top-ranked firms uniformly favored applicants who cited upper–middle class leisure pursuits such as rock climbing, playing the cello or enjoying film noir.

Picking employees from the same cultural basket may have pluses and minuses, Rivera adds. Hiring people with common traits and interests may create a cohesive work force. But shunning prospective employees with different life histories could also make firms susceptible to reaching decisions quickly without evaluating alternative ideas.

This challenges the American ideal of meritocracy where hard work should lead to a job. While the study suggests these cultural interests don’t matter as much when organizations are hiring for more technical jobs, it does matter for white-collar and upper-class jobs. This could also challenge the role of college courses: how many college classes are about developing a “scrappy” or “country club” approach to life? In contrast, the experience outside the classroom at some colleges (plus the applicants’ earlier life history) might contribute quite a bit to learning about and then developing these cultural skills.

It would also be interesting to look more at the personalities involved in hiring and branding that companies develop. Marketing today often involves selling a brand and image more so than focusing on the particulars of a product. Is this branding simply about marketing or does it bleed through the culture of the entire organization?