Private Office Blues

Having his own closed work space in the open-cubicle world of 2014 has our columnist feeling uneasy.

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Toward the end of his life, advertising genius and inveterate workplace redesigner Jay Chiat once told me, “People have to have places to hang their cat pictures. I get that now.” I don’t get it: I have no cat pictures. In my recently renovated private office—located in a 12-story 1920s building in Soho—there is a place for a chess set, some adorable family vacation photos, and four books on a table. Yet my interior decor delivers a deep personal dread that’s just now beginning to diminish. 

The books tell a story of my unease. There is my little red English translation of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, with its pithy, impenetrable gems about the meaning of work and struggle. There’s The Six Sigma Way (also red, though not at all little) written in the 1990s by successful management consultant Peter Pande about the productivity-boosting methodology that transformed the corporate work ethic at the end of the last century. On a Kindle is the self-explanatory Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans by Simon Head. And the latest is Nikil Saval’s entertaining Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, which could also be called “The Decline and Fall of the Corner-Office Empire.” I seek any wisdom that might explain why having an office with a door I can close and lock—why having my own closed personal space in the open-cubicle world of 2014—fills me with an apprehension that has barely lessened in the months since this lovely space was cleared out just for me.

I am the host of a daily public-radio news program and there is no obvious reason why having a private office space—with lots of fun, little wind-up toys on the desk, personal pictures, and other icons to privacy, including an elegant wooden chess set—should make me so nervous. Yes, anything more ostentatious than a pledge-drive coffee mug is considered an indulgence in public radio, but my anxiety goes deeper. It’s a learned trait that is proving difficult to unlearn, and the chessboard is a step in my long march back.

Work spaces have evolved away from an expectation of spatial privacy where time can be spent on collegial recreation.

My chess set is visible through the window into the corridor and has been there for months awaiting a challenger. No takers, except for a tech worker on a temp job. He played a game with me one afternoon (and won), before going off to his next job rewiring the IT infrastructure in another workspace. One possible explanation for the lack of eager opponents is the abundance of chess books on my shelves and a digital chess clock that suggests a grandmaster is lurking about (I love chess but actually suck as a player). A better explanation is that our work space, like so many others, has evolved away from an expectation of spatial privacy where time can be spent on collegial recreation. There may still be friendly foosball tables at the Googleplex, but nowhere else on Planet Earth anymore.

I spend most of my time in the airless studio where my show is produced—a room with a soundproof door worthy of a blast shelter, behind a sheet of bulletproof-looking glass, where I’m stared at and ordered around by the half dozen people in the adjoining control room. Unlike my more leisurely looking office, in this prison cell, no one can ever argue that I am not doing my job. 

What’s going on here is a lesson Chiat learned a long time ago. The tension between communal productive space and private territory inevitably plays out in any office environment, including snazzy contemporary open cubicles with baristas on every floor. Private activity not obviously devoted to the company mission stands out. In my shop, I constantly see workers in corners and hallways having phone conversations not possible in their cubicles. Open-plan architecture, wireless connectivity, and the exploding new capability to monitor workers on the job have blown the doors off the private office. Private space has been pushed into the background—onto cell phone screens, private email windows, and  out-of-network Wi-Fi connections. Like electronic lingerie under the outward office casual decor, the private has migrated to an invisible interior.

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