I’ll admit it: I lost a fair amount of work time today. I share a small office with two other people, neither of whom were present when I arrived this morning. So, I settled down, fired off my morning “chores” email to my son, and dived into a small feature that had been bugging me for too long with recalcitrant jquery problems. I did a fair amount of work.
One coworker emailed in that she’d been forced to commute to Bellevue and back and would be late. My other coworker was on a bus back from Vancouver, B.C., after doing an organized Seattle-to-Vancouver ride. So I had the place to myself for a good long time and I did get some stuff done.
Then my coworker who’d been diverted to Bellevue (or “Across the Water,” as we think of it) arrived. She got down to work as well, doing all of that Monday morning getting oriented, organized, and prepared to face the week.
It was all quiet tippity-tapping of keyboards for a while and then–I don’t remember who started it–we began chatting. And because we have a small, three-person office, there was no one there to disturb with our happy, tangent-filled discourse. We chatted, I confess, for quite a while.
Since our company contracted from three to two floors in the building, a lot of dynamics have changed. Our leadership had spoken enthusiastically of building more synergy from more people rubbing elbows, but they were speaking in general and not in relation to our particular situation.
Formerly, we sat as a group of five or so (the number undulates with a delightful stream of visitors, graduate students, post-graduate students, and others). We were also seated in a wide open area right next to the Help Desk folks (all pleasant) and, just beyond them, the Systems folks. Once in a while conversation would cross-pollinate across groups. Most of the time we chatted by caste. But the fact that you knew other people were within hearing range not only cut down on the loudness of any conviviality, it cut down on the length of it.
I’m mostly an introvert. Why do I sound like I’m advocating for an open floor plan as an aid to productivity? Well, I’m not. For one, not only has our group been cut into two subgroups on opposite sides of the building, we’ve lost the friendly camaraderie between ourselves and the unrelated IT groups that we used to share our open space with.
Most frightening of all is that one of us in our small office will be leaving permanently for India in December. He’s one of the kindest and smartest people I’ve ever known and he comprises 1/3 of my office. When he leaves, who will come and sit at that desk? How will that change the solid, stable chemistry built by six years of working together, sharing our ups and downs and inside jokes? Could the remaining 2/3 of us swallow a “poison pill?” Could we transform such a person? With so few people inside such a tiny area, we have no way to diffuse the tension.
Endless expanses of drab cubes is definitely the wave of the past, but oppressive walls and tiny pockets of people isn’t the wave of the future, either (our office is shaped like a Tetris block). Rather, the obvious answer is that not only do you need an open, collaborative space, you need one that’s flexible enough to offer some privacy (private phone call, anyone?) in addition to allowing folks who might not otherwise work together to rub shoulders.
I sit and think of December with a mixture of hope and dread: dreading the loss of a great co-worker and hoping against hope that whatever fresh blood comes along and occupies his former desk can help us make another, fresh whole that will keep our tiny office functioning, both during work and during play.
Who knows, maybe we’ll get a real winner and even host another Open House and have champagne and snacks, like we did when we first moved in. We got a liquor license and posted it proudly in our little Tetris block and everything. It was a great party–too bad you missed it.