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Lucy Kellaway's 'History of Office Life'
August 2, 2013 6:41 AM   Subscribe

A series of BBC News Magazine articles on the office as workplace: (i) How the office was invented; (ii) The ancient Chinese exam that inspired modern job recruitment (previously); (iii) The invention of the career ladder; (iv) The arrival of women in the office; (v) Do we still need the telephone?; (vi) Are there too many managers?; (vii) The era of the sexually charged office; (viii) The decline of privacy in open-plan offices; (ix) How the computer changed the office forever and (x) Why did offices become like the home?—by columnist Lucy Kellaway.

(Published to coincide with Kellaway’s BBC Radio 4 series on the same subject.)
posted by misteraitch (22 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
These are wonderful.
posted by dmd at 7:54 AM on August 2, 2013


"Do we still need the telephone?"

NO! *sends article to his manager, via email*
posted by Eideteker at 8:13 AM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


"there were to be no more white Cadillacs at Eli Lilly. All executives had to trade in their cars or get them resprayed."
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:34 AM on August 2, 2013


I don't know if these articles are going to help me improve my open plan workplace, or just make me more pissed off when I can't make improvements. For example:

"We cannot avoid exposure, we see everybody going by. We may see the same person go by 30 times. Now do you invest in a recognition act every time someone goes by? You are distracted and irritated by this exposure overload."

I work in an area where about a hundred people sit at rows of computers, each one on a 3x5 foot rolling desk, in pairs facing each other. I noticed that people some put post-it notes on the top of their monitors, so they don't have to look into each other's eyes all day. But my biggest annoyance is foot traffic. The area is linoleum over concrete, and was never intended for office space. The real office space is just past us, and there is a constant stream of traffic back and forth, over and over. I am particularly annoyed by two women who wear high heel shoes. One of them wears stripper heels, when she walks past, each step sounds like she's hitting a woodblock percussion instrument. And she goes past over and over, back and forth, in front of my desk. I swear these women like broadcasting their presence with the loudest, most annoying footwear they can find. Apparently they do not understand, we are the people who actually do the work around the office, they are the functionaries and paper shufflers and they are interfering with our concentration.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:51 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone who's worked in an office knows that the value of email isn't the quiet it brings to the office, but the ability to CYA. Get everything documented so when someone says, "Hey, I told you to do X not Y" you can just point to the email saying otherwise.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:52 AM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Lucy Kellaway can do no wrong. Check out her reportage of Martin Lukes.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:03 AM on August 2, 2013


Maybe every time they walk past your desk they're annoyed by your constant harrumphing. Which is worse? If you don't get the papers that they're shuffling by running the office functionally in clacky shoes you're shit out of luck. Life can be infinitely annoying for just about everyone.
posted by h00py at 9:07 AM on August 2, 2013


I think we're getting side-tracked here. We should stay focused on the arrangements for the yearly turtle feast.
posted by RobotHero at 9:14 AM on August 2, 2013


It's been said that one of Kafka's great achievements was to perceive and communicate the fantastic and unreal character of office life.
posted by thelonius at 9:24 AM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


> Apparently they do not understand, we are the people who actually do the work around the office, they are the functionaries and paper shufflers and they are interfering with our concentration.

what the genuine fuck
posted by ardgedee at 9:27 AM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


If only I weren't in the office, I'd have time to read these great looking articles.

Luckily my door is closed so I can't hear heels clicking down our LEED approved concrete hallway. Women's shoes (like my favorite flat sandals) seem designed for maximum noise.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 9:29 AM on August 2, 2013



There was an episode of the great early 80's British educational show, "The Secret Life Of Machines", about the then modern office.

It was pretty great. The host was an independent special effects artist, so it was pretty clear that he had never really worked in an office and held them in disdain.
posted by pknodle at 9:31 AM on August 2, 2013


The funny thing about open-plan offices is that when people criticise them, they do so with the unspoken (actually, not always unspoken) afterword that if we all went back to cubicles/enclosed offices then that would fix things.

However, the solution to the most oft-criticised aspects of the open-plan office doesn't have to be get rid of it - it's usually a lot more to do with culture.

For instance, take home working. Yahoo's CEO recently banned it, there is a near constant slew of articles and opinion pieces talking about home-working slackers, but research suggests that the incoming workforce increasingly regards it as a right, not a privilege, and one of the only ways to make the increasingly out-of-hours demands of a job fit alongside family life.

Now imagine that office culture embraced home working. Budget is set aside for those workers whose tasks suit two or three days working from home to get them set up right. Fewer workers in the office at any one time (home working days are scheduled to not all be on mondays and fridays!). Fewer desks needed. Those workers who do need an allocated desk get more space. There is more space for informal meeting settings, confidential "quiet rooms" and breakout spaces. Managers pay more attention to the quality of a worker's output, rather than how often they are at their desk.

And, for those people gritting their teeth at the high-heeled ladies, they can probably now afford some carpet for around your desk ;)
posted by greenish at 9:38 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


High-heeled ladies are people too.
posted by h00py at 9:43 AM on August 2, 2013


Yeah just to clarify - that last sentence is tongue-in-cheek. I don't think the ladies or their heels are the problem, in other words.
posted by greenish at 9:47 AM on August 2, 2013


"We cannot avoid exposure, we see everybody going by. We may see the same person go by 30 times. Now do you invest in a recognition act every time someone goes by? You are distracted and irritated by this exposure overload."

Douglas Adams had this all figured out.

CORRIEARKLET (n.)
The moment at which two people approaching from opposite ends of a long passageway, recognise each other and immediately pretend they haven't. This is to avoid the ghastly embarrassment of having to continue recognising each other the whole length of the corridor.

CORRIECRAVIE (n.)
To avert the horrors of corrievorrie (q.v.) corriecravie is usually employed. This is the cowardly but highly skilled process by which both protagonists continue to approach while keeping up the pretence that they haven't noticed each other - by staring furiously at their feet, grimacing into a notebook, or studying the walls closely as if in a mood of deep irritation.

CORRIEDOO (n.)
The crucial moment of false recognition in a long passageway encounter. Though both people are perfectly well aware that the other is approaching, they must eventually pretend sudden recognition. They now look up with a glassy smile, as if having spotted each other for the first time, (and are particularly delighted to have done so) shouting out 'Haaaaaallllloooo!' as if to say 'Good grief!! You!! Here!! Of all people! Will I never. Coo. Stap me vitals, etc.'

CORRIEMOILLIE (n.)
The dreadful sinking sensation in a long passageway encounter when both protagonists immediately realise they have plumped for the corriedoo (q.v.) much too early as they are still a good thirty yards apart. They were embarrassed by the pretence of corriecravie (q.v.) and decided to make use of the corriedoo because they felt silly. This was a mistake as corrievorrie (q.v.) will make them seem far sillier.

CORRIEVORRIE (n.)
Corridor etiquette demands that one a corriedoo (q.v.) has been declared, corrievorrie must be employed. Both protagonists must now embellish their approach with an embarrassing combination of waving, grinning, making idiot faces, doing pirate impressions, and waggling the head from side to side while holding the other person's eyes as the smile drips off their face, until with great relief, they pass each other.

CORRIEMUCHLOCH (n.)
Word describing the kind of person who can make a complete mess of a simple job like walking down a corridor.

posted by ambivalentic at 9:52 AM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the "Decline of Privacy" piece:

Out went regimented layouts and enforced silence, and in came a load of pot plants and the idea that everyone could talk to everyone. But hierarchy wasn't as easily dispensed with as all that.

That describes my office pretty well.
posted by Ratio at 12:49 PM on August 2, 2013


"We should stay focused on the arrangements for the yearly turtle feast."

Sidetrack, but QI dips into this a bit.
posted by Eideteker at 1:10 PM on August 2, 2013


'"Do we still need the telephone?"

NO! *sends article to his manager, via email*'


Guys in case you think I am joking, she just called me to ask if someone else who sits on our floor was still here. Instead of, you know, calling him. *unplugs phone*
posted by Eideteker at 2:55 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


greenish: The funny thing about open-plan offices is that when people criticise them, they do so with the unspoken (actually, not always unspoken) afterword that if we all went back to cubicles/enclosed offices then that would fix things.

Not at all. But in my specific case, cubies would be infinitely preferable to the current sweatshop conditions.

The open plan office was originally conceived as an organic structure, look at the photo and layout in this article. That office was designed with sound barriers and intentionally broke up foot traffic by keeping functional units separate. It is possible to do an open plan well. The floor upstairs from where I work is a showpiece. It has the latest in office architecture, using asymmetrical polygonal cubicles on a hex grid. They have the latest in ergonomic furniture, I see quite a few Aeron and Leap chairs costing over $1000. Even the electric and ethernet cables have a molded architectural column to run through, it looks like a hybrid of a Doric Column and a plant stem. The plexiglass partitions have attractive patterns sandblasted on them. The building's HVAC system was completely reengineered to ventilate this office.

But I work in the basement, in an area that was originally intended for shelving and storing paperwork. It has a linoleum floor because they were pushing handcarts around. Bare ethernet and power cables dangle from the ceiling in bundles. Chains of power strips run underneath the rolling desks, sometimes 10 in a row from one power plug. The fire marshall would have a fit. This office absolutely does not meet fire codes, it exceeds maximum occupancy rules, and the exposed power cables would have to be run in fixed channels. Other building codes are ignored, there aren't enough fire exits and more bathrooms are required. This space was never intended for such a high density of office workers.

I heard about this unstructured rolling desk dangling cables approach in an article recently in Wired magazine I think. It is all the rage. No more cubies. Just set up a bunch of tables whenever you need a new work group. Drop naked cabling from the ceiling. You can get more people packed into the same area because they need only 3x4 feet, not the minimum 8x8 foot cubie. The article I read described how one company had to get waivers from the fire department because it broke all the rules. Well that is the fucking point of workplace safety rules, to prevent greedy companies from skirting regulations on workplace safety. Someday there will be another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in one of these high density computer offices. I almost saw it happen before my very eyes. We were all preparing for an exam that we had to pass to qualify for this job, when an emergency klaxon sounded. Everyone jumped up in a panic and looked around for the fire exits. People started kicking their chairs aside and running for the one exit, when suddenly one guy ran over to his desk and answered his phone. The emergency klaxon was his ringtone. It took an hour for everyone to settle back down. The next morning I talked to the manager and told him that office regulations require phones to be in silent mode during work hours, so it should be unnecessary to tell people not to use emergency sirens as their ringtones.

However, the solution to the most oft-criticised aspects of the open-plan office doesn't have to be get rid of it - it's usually a lot more to do with culture.

Correct. But architecture is a way of embodying a culture as a hierarchical structure. In the computer age, this concept is obsolete. The servers and client computers determine the hierarchy, we no longer need managers in corner offices observing the "little people."

And that is the problem with my office. It is highly structured on the computer, but the workplace is still designed like a sweatshop that passes piecework from desk to desk. The core issue here IS culture. We are temp workers, very little thought is given to workplace accommodations for the little people. So turnover is almost 100%, most people can't stand to do this job more than once. But even the most modest changes in the design that were requested by workers, can make the entire office more pleasant for everyone. The most common complaint (and not just from me) was foot traffic, especially women in high heels. People traipsed right through our workspace without any regard for the work going on there. We requested some portable folding partitions and they were set up to block people from walking through. It worked great, except for the people near the edges of the workspace where all the foot traffic was concentrated. And since there are no sound partitions within the workspace, the sound echoes around the room. I sit near the edge and was astonished to see almost every single person stop work and look up when Miss Platform Heels tippety taps past the room. I asked the managers if they could put some floor mats down the aisles to reduce the noise from foot traffic, but they have no idea what I'm talking about. This is a non-problem, because the people who would have to approve purchasing some cheap floor mats cannot imagine this is a problem, they work in the showplace offices upstairs with new carpet.

So excuse me Miss Platform Heels, your clickety clacking shoes are interfering with an essential part of this company's function. They may make you feel good, and I am sure they make you feel tall. But my job involves requires intense concentration for hours on end, solving difficult math problems. I cannot factor polynomials and multiply trig identities in my head while you are pacing back and forth. I know you have sensible shoes, you wore them once. Once.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:24 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


We recently had somebody new start with our department. I coordinated a lot of the onboarding things for her, and she popped her head into my workspace a few days after she started. "By the way, how do you prefer to communicate? Is it good if I stop by, or phone, or...?"

"Stopping by to say hi is fine," I said, "and email is great. I'm not really big on the phone."

"Oh, good!" she said, brightly, "me neither."

This gal's got potential, I tell ya.
posted by Lexica at 9:02 PM on August 2, 2013


I prefer phone and face-to-face contact when something actually needs to be figured out. Email is useful for communicating things that have already been figured out. (I should mention that I hate email)

Cubicles may not be "cool", but the best working environments I've experienced were cubicle-based. Besides the obvious privacy win, it also guarantees that everyone gets a certain amount of personal space.
posted by evil otto at 9:15 AM on August 3, 2013


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