Would We Work Better ... With No Offices at All? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Would We Work Better ... With No Offices at All?

Would We Work Better ... With No Offices at All?

By Sanjena Sathian

A man looks sad in a room full of cubicles.


Because maybe no number of perks or happy hours can fix a damned institution.

By Sanjena Sathian

OZY just got new digs. The new office is startup-slick: bright green and orange walls, a huge mural full of photos from our stories on a far wall. Beer and pingpong.

But, no offense, bosses, maybe it wasn’t worth the $$. It’s time: Abolish the modern office already. No, not just screw-Marissa-Mayer-revive-telecommuting, and no, not just a few work-from-home days a week. We’re proposing a total demolition of the soul-sucking spaces that are the physical hubs of our work. (Editor’s note: HOW COULD YOU?

Did Office Space, Dilbert and the pointy-haired boss, and Michael Scott teach us nothing? After all, these structures were invented to run large colonial and industrial bureaucracies where the space was needed to contain clerks, massive mail operations, mountains of paperwork. Or, if you have a darker perspective, the whole open-floor-plan thing — whether cubicles or slick Mac monitors — has a whiff of the panopticon about it. (Editor’s note: THE WHIFF?) 

Indeed, obsolescence! cries Anat Lechner, professor of management and organization at New York University’s Stern Business School. She rattles off lots of reasons you can cite to your boss when you re-propose this idea: For one, space is expensive, and increasingly so. In San Francisco, companies dole out as much as $100 per square foot. Then there’s commuting: The census shows average American commute time is around 25 minutes, but add to that the hustle of getting yourself or kids out of bed, fitting in a half-hour at the gym, attempting to cram a healthy breakfast down your piehole … oh, and don’t forget commuting’s adverse impact on marriage, health and women’s participation in the workforce.

Bostonian Roy Miller, now the vice president of business development at 3Derm, a health-tech company, was a remote CEO for an almost entirely virtual medical hardware tech company, eRAD, between 1999 and 2010. The de facto HQ for the company was first in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then Greenville, South Carolina, but Miller only maintained that because when you’re making physical stuff, you need a place to test it. He ran phone calls with his executive management team every Tuesday and held retreats. No regrets.

We know exactly what you’re doing. Who cares where you’re doing it from?

Anat Lechner, professor at NYU’s Stern Business School 

Same for Laura Dawn, the former creative director for MoveOn.org, the virtual-run progressive campaign group; she was a recording artist before taking a more “mainstream” gig. Her brief time at a standard office job grated: Why was she spending more time with strange co-workers than her own family or friends? Now the founder of her own also-virtual media company, ART NOT WAR, and a new parent, she suggests everyone swing her way.

Of course, the advantages of the physical office, everyone agrees, are essentially twofold, and obvious enough: Casual chitchat begets both good ideas and a brain break for the weary. (Editor’s note: NO LAUGHING!) Plus, sometimes you really need to get away from your kids, or spouse, or roommates. Which is why Lechner, Miller and Dawn all agree that in some cases, you need to beam down to real life — and MoveOn, in fact, eventually arranged a physical meeting space for creative work. 

Ironically, the best pitch you can make to your boss may be what Lechner explains: “We have full transparency now,” she says. “You can see the trail of technology — when you called, who you emailed, which conference call you jumped in and out of. We know exactly what you’re doing. Who cares where you’re doing it from?” Who cares, indeed, since apparently the panopticon is now officially inescapable. (Management’s note: YUP!)


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