Open office arrangements may not work for getting work done

An evaluation of the implosion of The We Company highlights the importance of physical space for accomplishing tasks in the workplace:

Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees. But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.

The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the last decade, American offices got more and more stuffed. On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8 percent since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space

But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work…

The scourge of open offices is not a new subject for ranting. Open offices were sold to workers as a boon to collaboration — liberated from barriers, stuffed in like sardines, people would chat more and, supposedly, come up with lots of brilliant new ideas. Yet study after study has shown open offices to foster seclusion more than innovation; in order to combat noise, the loss of privacy and the sense of being watched, people in an open office put on headphones, talk less, and feel terrible.

This moment might just a tipping point in the evolution of office space. Cubed suggests office layouts do change over time. What seems to be next is a mixing of older models and the open model: different spaces that range from very private (think soundproof booths or offices away from activity, sound, and eyes) to very open (think couches and play areas for activity). How exactly the imperative to save money or be efficient remains to be seen.

Hinted at in this opinion piece is another interesting idea: could truly private spaces only be available to certain classes of workers or certain people? The office has long been symbol of more power and/or responsibility. Imagine a workforce or a public where the majority of people operate in common spaces that are semi-private, with privacy usually obtained though the actions of individuals (headphones, focus on screens, etc.). In contrast, those with power and resources have access to distraction-free spaces.

Another big issue could be this: how much work these days is truly distraction-free and are we moving toward less deep work? Again, this might different by field or role. But, the rise of smartphones and the Internet means people are highly distractable from work, even in very private settings. American adults on average are consuming 11 hours of media a day, some of this which must happen at work for many.

Cooking meat in a suburban backyard and resolving suburban conflicts

A recent controversy in an Australian suburb highlights two key issues in suburbia: (1) what exactly can you do in a suburban backyard and (2) how do suburbanites resolve conflict? To the details:

The Perth woman said she couldn’t enjoy her backyard in the suburb of Girrawheen, claiming her neighbours deliberately allow their barbecue meat and fish smells to waft into her yard…

After her claims were rejected by a tribunal earlier this year on lack of evidence, she applied to the Supreme Court of Western Australia for right of appeal. It was also turned down in July…

And it’s not just the smell of meat and fish that has made her furious — it’s the smell of cigarettes and the sound of children playing with basketballs…

Mr Vu said he just wanted to “keep the peace” and had removed the barbecue out of his yard and also banned his children from playing basketball…

Mr Hammond said the first step in any dispute with your neighbours was to try and resolve the matter face-to-face.

Two issues are present:

  1. Suburbanites tend to assume that backyards are for private activities. The front yard is open to the public and can be seen from the street and the sidewalk. The backyard is more hidden, particularly if the yard is fenced or cut out from view in other ways (such as through hedges and trees). But, are there limits to what can be done in backyards? What is considered infringing on others? Overly loud dogs? Trees that cross property lines? Activities found undesirable by neighbors (such as grilling and playing basketball)? Where property rights end and neighborhood disturbances and nuisances begin could be a fine line (and there are surely some local regulations to help figure this out).
  2. Suburbanites are often not great at resolving conflict. Baumgarner argued suburban community is built around avoiding open conflict and using third party actors if necessary. It is not clear from the article above how much face-to-face interaction happened between neighbors but appealing to the courts seems likely to end badly for neighborly relations: no matter who wins, the fact that this led to media coverage and court cases likely makes it more difficult to have positive relationships.

On one hand, this is a small-scale conflict. On the other hand, multiply such conflicts by just a few and the suburbs look like a place where neighbors want to be protected from each other – wait, privacy and exclusion was indeed behind the creation of suburbs

Closer to blanketing suburban neighborhoods with cameras (via Ring doorbells)

Police in hundreds of cities will now have access to Ring doorbell camera footage:

The doorbell-camera company Ring has quietly forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them access to homeowners’ camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls America’s “new neighborhood watch.”

The partnerships let police automatically request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area, helping officers see footage from the company’s millions of Internet-connected cameras installed nationwide, the company said. Officers don’t receive ongoing or live-video access, and homeowners can decline the requests, which are sent via emails that thank them for “making your neighborhood a safer place.”…

To seek out Ring video that has not yet been publicly shared, officers can use a special “Neighbors Portal” map interface to designate a time range and local area, up to half a square mile wide, and get Ring to send an automated email to all users within that range, alongside a case number and message from police.

The user can click to share their Ring videos, review them before sharing or, at the bottom of the email, unsubscribe from future footage-sharing requests. “If you would like to take direct action to make your neighborhood safer, this is a great opportunity,” an email supplied by Ring states.

See earlier posts about suburban police access to individual cameras and my own thinking about covering suburban neighborhoods with private cameras. Quoting from the latter post:

[I]f every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

At the same time, I suspect numerous suburbs would welcome this extra surveillance. Think of wealthier suburban neighborhoods or communities: wouldn’t they typically welcome more information on who is around their homes? This might not even be about crime but really about possible crimes or activity from ne’er-do-wells or even who should be around on streets and sidewalks (often delimited by race and class). Privacy concerns might be mitigated by the suggestion in the article that users still get to choose whether they share footage with police.

Maybe it will all quickly come to this: what about the resident in these communities who refuses to get a Ring doorbell or install security cameras? A small hole in the surveillance network could bring about pressure from neighbors to conform and protect the neighborhood.

Imagining suburbs completely covered by security cameras from single-family homes

After a story from Kane County, Illinois about the extra work for prosecutors in going through video evidence from video doorbells, this got me thinking about surveillance in the suburbs. Imagine in the next few years the typical suburban neighborhood is covered by homeowner surveillance cameras of one kind or another: video doorbells plus consistently-running or motion-detection cameras mounted on the inside and outside of homes.

Traditionally, suburban areas have been more fond of privacy with the emphasis on single-family homes, interactions with neighbors by choice, and a willingness to fight local initiatives if they threaten said property and home. Big cities have long been home to more surveillance ranging from Jane Jacobs’ famous line about “eyes on the street” to the rise of CCTV in London.

What exactly is the cause of all of this? A few factors may be at work:

  1. The ease and low cost of the technology. Why have a regular doorbell when a video doorbell does not cost that much? (And the Internet suggests some people have fears of answering the door.)
  2. Fear of crime, even in relatively low crime suburban areas and after violent crime has dropped in the United States.
  3. A belief that video evidence is much more conclusive evidence compared to other types.
  4. A want to monitor/protect one’s single-family home at all times.

But, if every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

If suburban neighborhoods are increasingly under video surveillance, I wonder if this might change some decisions about where people live. Could this push people to more rural areas or perhaps to communities that more tightly control entries and exits (think gated communities with a real presence all around the perimeter? Or, would the extra surveillance encourage people to live in certain suburbs? Perhaps the decades-old neighborhood watches will be replaced by an unblinking eye on every house.

Will the public be willing to pay more money so police and prosecutors can go through all the new video evidence they have?

The uptick in evidence from devices like video doorbells and police body cameras means more work for public servants:

But State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said prosecutors in some ways are busier than ever with new types of evidence, such as surveillance from Wifi-enabled doorbells, police body cameras and home and business surveillance, compared to several years ago.

“We’re now seeing video come in from Ring doorbells,” McMahon said this week during his monthly media briefing. “We’re now getting actual video, audio and digital information that must be reviewed and analyzed and ultimately stored.”

In recent months, video from doorbell cameras helped police arrest a burglary suspect, and data from a Ring doorbell was used to confirm the identity of a suspect in a Sleepy Hollow home invasion, attempted murder and sex assault. Both court cases are pending.

McMahon said reviewing body camera video from multiple officers responding to a violent crime or even a DUI arrest has increased the workload for prosecutors compared to several years ago.

If there is demonstrable proof that crime rates are going down or more crimes are solved because of this additional evidence, I would guess the public would provide more funds – likely through taxes – to help go through all of the evidence. But, if the evidence does not lead to much or it somehow slips through the cracks or is hacked, it might be very hard to find the public resources.

This also seems ripe for algorithms/machine learning tools to help county and municipal officials scan quickly through all these video feeds. All of this could be very expensive to do in the short-term but could help handle the increasing video streams of the future.

Possible limits even as more Americans seek housing that accommodates multiple generations

If more Americans want to live in multigenerational households, can they find homes that make room for this arrangement?

But for complex reasons that still puzzle researchers, multigenerational households are now on the rise once more. As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Living with your parents (or your adult children) has plenty of potential benefits–everyone tends to save money, it can potentially benefit health outcomes, and you get to spend more time together.

Just one problem: American housing stock, dominated by single-family homes and connected by cars, isn’t really designed for it…

The advent of commercial air travel and the rapid expansion of American suburbia made inexpensive, single-family housing–and cross-country travel–attainable for more and more people. By 1950, just 21% of American households contained two or more generations. New funding for nursing homes from the Federal Housing Administration led to a boom in private nursing homes in 1950s and ’60s, and over time it became more and more normal to self-select into senior housing rather than living with your children. By 1980, the number of multigenerational homes had dropped to just 12%, according to Pew

But in any case, homes designed specifically for multigenerational living are still a small segment of the housing market. Far more common are families that have renovated their homes to suit aging parents or adult children, like the architect Cini, whose firm Mosaic Design specializes in senior design, particularly assisted living centers. Her personal experience with multigenerational life eventually led to a book, Hive, a practical how-to for other families who, either by necessity or choice, are moving in together. In large part, Hive addresses the unspoken taboos and tensions of living with your parents and grandparents.

No doubt there are complex social and cultural shifts behind this. The 20th century of mass American suburbanization may be an outlier in human history with the significant move to private single-family homes.

The larger issue that is reflected in this housing crunch may be that of increasing individualism and autonomy in recent centuries. Even the discussions of possible solutions to this housing issue betray this. The nursing home frees the family from obligations to care for elderly or infirm family members. Cohousing provides more community but residents still retreat to private units. Making alterations to a single-family home to accommodate family members can often lead to in-law suites or separate entrances.

Put another way, economic conditions and/or changing relationships between generations mean that more families want to live together but there are limits on how much autonomy or privacy family members are willing to give up. How a family arranges the space in its home could take many different forms. I don’t think anyone is recommending family members all sleep in just one or a few rooms, something common to much of human history. But, living together also does not necessarily mean that family members sharing an address actually see each other that much. A converted single-family home could be more like a duplex than a tight multigenerational setup. Family may be good to have close but perhaps not too close?

Or, to put it a third way, how many Americans would choose these multifamily or cohousing setups if the price of housing was not too high? The social benefits of a multigenerational family home could be high but Americans also value their autonomy.

 

With opposition to Google’s Toronto smart neighborhood, larger questions about powerful corporations, tax breaks, and public-private partnerships

Plans in Toronto for Google’s major development have hit multiple stumbling blocks:

As in New York, where fierce opposition to Amazon led the online retail giant to cancel plans to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, a local movement here is growing to send Sidewalk Labs packing. Their concerns: money, privacy, and whether Toronto is handing too much power over civic life to a for-profit American tech giant.

The #BlockSidewalk campaign formed in February after the Toronto Star reported on leaked documents indicating that Sidewalk Labs was considering paying for transit and infrastructure on a larger portion of the waterfront. In return, it would seek a cut of the property taxes, development fees and the increased value of the land resulting from the development — an estimated $6 billion over 30 years…

Separately, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the city, provincial and federal governments to shut down the project over privacy concerns. Michael Bryant, the head of the group, said Trudeau had been “seduced by the honey pot of Google’s sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory.”…

Micah Lasher, the head of policy and communications for Sidewalk Labs, said providing more details about the business model for Quayside and plans for data governance earlier would have helped allay many concerns. But he also said the business model remains uncertain.

Any major development or redevelopment project in a major city can run into issues. But, there seem to be at least three larger concerns at play here:

  1. Google and the role of tech companies. The public may be more suspicious of these corporations today compared to ten years ago when all the technology seemed rather magical. Issues of privacy and power matter more today.
  2. Tax breaks may not be the answer they once were in cities and metropolitan areas in order to attract corporations and developers. Residents and local leaders may ask why Google, a very wealthy corporation, needs any tax breaks. And, if the tax breaks are not provided, will Google take its smart city development elsewhere?
  3. This might signal larger issues with public-private partnerships. For at least a ten years or so now, these have been hailed as a way to move forward in many cities: both the local government and the developers chip in to get things done with benefits to both sides. But, do such deals turn over too much control or too many of the benefits to the private side rather than spreading the benefits to the residents and the community?

It will be interesting to see how local political and business leaders handle this: can they afford to let the project die or go elsewhere?

Perhaps the long-term answer for companies like Google is to follow the lead of Disney and Celebration, Florida and create whole communities rather than entering in messy situations in already-existing communities.