The New Office I’m Looking Forward to—Maybe

My company is most likely moving offices again, this time from an undesirable area of Manhattan, New York City, to what looks like a desirable workplace in an area of an outer borough I used to consider undesirable—Long Island City, Queens.

As a Manhattan snob, my initial reflex was to turn my nose up at the idea. That was until the head of my department shared that our office space would be located in a seemingly forward-thinking, hip space: The Factory. I haven’t seen it in person yet, so maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but it reminds me, from its Website, of a luxury apartment building, or maybe Chelsea Market, a jazzy shopping and office complex in Manhattan. Like Chelsea Market, there’s a marketplace of upscale/organic-foodie restaurants designed to accommodate the grab-and-go lunch crowd, and even on-site exercise facilities (which I don’t plan to use). And even outdoor rooftop decks.

A former warehouse for Macy’s department store, the old industrial space has been renovated as a workplace for spoiled young(ish) people. My 60-something boss joked that he and our department head, who also is in his early 60s, would be assumed by the other tenants to be somebody’s father. My extroverted, forever-ebullient, boss, said The Factory had the right idea in that the site showed nothing but open-plan office layouts, in which there were no cubicles or offices; just long tables with places for people to plug in computers and devices. Then, presumably, there were meeting areas and rooms. “Your headphones are your wall,” he said. “Just grab a room and go,” he added for how work life could be when the impromptu need for a meeting space arose.

The casual, fluid nature of the office appealed to me, and I already have headphones on all day listening to music, so noise wouldn’t be any more of an issue for me than it is already. But the lack of privacy—of constantly being within range of someone’s sight, while doing work or thinking—is jarring for me. In that way, the modern, open-plan office reminds me of a prison or mental hospital. I wonder, paranoid, if part of the love of the open-plan layout is the ability it gives managers to constantly keep their eyes on employees.

Unilever, a company based in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, is updating its workplace, and is following the same style I observed on The Factory Website. “Lots of open and shared spaces, and no assigned desks,” an article on reported. Unilever owns ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, so there’s also free ice cream, and many greasy, savory options in the food marketplace in the building, but ever the modern, concerned employer, “there is a cafeteria overseen by a restaurant-trained chef who tries hard to tempt you away from fries and toward grain bowls and roasted veggies.” And there are yoga mats to use to de-stress.

I really like all those things—especially (most especially) the free ice cream—but I’m still having trouble with the elimination of private spaces, of which you can take ownership. Even if it’s tiny, there’s something psychologically helpful about a cubicle that’s yours alone, and comes with three walls shielding you from sight. When Training was owned by a previous company, I had a lavishly decorated cubicle, complete with named plants, including an Ivy plant, Rapunzel, whose vines eventually wrapped around my phone. I also had a foam frog on a wire affixed to the top of the cubicle, so I could be easily found. And there was even a rubber chicken named Harold. As an introverted, creative person, I found this private refuge, filled with creations from my imagination, to be comforting and therapeutic.

Open-plan office spaces are billed as greatly loved by creative types, but is that true? Who are these wide-open spaces really for? In addition to wondering if the true motivation is greater ability to watch employees, and lessen freedom during working hours, I wonder if the other motivation is cost reduction. Is it more cost-efficient to do away with cubicles, and just offer long tables with electrical outlets? Dressed up in cool, hip-seeming spaces, with gourmet foodie options, and yoga mats, is this all just a fancy way of keeping a stronger eye and thumb on employees, all the while saving money?

Innovation and creativity are catchwords in the corporate world, but as a creative, imaginative person myself, the open plan isn’t appealing. Many, if not most, creative types are not interaction-loving, life-of-the-party types. Many are solitary-seeking, reflective people, who want private spaces where they can think deeply and be imaginative. Unique ideas for new products and services begin in the imagination of one person. That one person then may share that idea, and have others add to, or alter, it, but it begins with that one person’s internal journey. Do open-plan offices, regardless how luxurious, encourage the deep, solitary reflection where those ideas are born?

Have you updated your office spaces lately? What changes did you make, and why? Have you tried open-plan office layouts? What are the advantages and downsides?

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