Essay: Why it's so hard to do good work in the modern office

When I peered in the window at 140 Hawthorne St. in San Francisco, the place looked deserted. Maybe Automattic, the company that owns WordPress, had already abandoned the 14,000-square-foot former warehouse it renovated just four years ago. The long work tables were still there, the Aeron chairs still awaiting laptop-porting employees, a big screen still ready for someone's presentation, a few computers still lining a back table. But no one seemed to be around.

Then, way in the back of the cavernous room, behind a large monitor, I glimpsed the top of a head. I rang the bell. The office's sole occupant, who identified himself as Dan, welcomed me in. I explained that I was curious to see the place Automattic says it's leaving because too few employees actually use it. In addition to the ground-floor workspace, Dan showed me the lounge-like upstairs, which was equally devoid of human occupants. He said he's one of the few employees who live in San Francisco and comes in two or three times a week.

Automattic's announcement is a stark contrast to IBM's recent decision to end its long-standing remote work program. After decades of promoting telecommuting, the company told employees they'd have to come back to the office or find employment elsewhere. By bringing teams together in real life, IBM hopes to spark better collaboration and quicker response times.

The two companies encapsulate the trade-offs of remote working. Allow it and you broaden your hiring base, including people who can't (or won't) relocate, whose family obligations keep them at home, or who just hate commuting. Not every employee has to live in the same place, and that's an especially big advantage as housing prices skyrocket in tech hubs like San Francisco. As Automattic's workforce grew from about 100, with 15 in the Bay Area, to 500, the number of local residents never went above 30.

The downside is, of course, that you lose the advantages of face-to-face communication: the impromptu brainstorming and knowledge sharing, the subtle cues of facial expression and body language, the camaraderie and office friendships, the daily affirmation of a common enterprise. Working alone can be isolating, and human beings are instinctively social animals. By ending remote work, employers like IBM are hoping that they can channel that instinct to produce better results.

But people don't work remotely only for the convenience. Many do it so they can actually get their work done.

"I was able to get a lot done in a much shorter amount of time than when I was in the office, because there were no distractions from working in a noisy cubicle farm," recalls retired technology consultant Beth Donovan, who implemented and supported enterprise system management software for hospitals.

"What I do requires concentration," editorial consultant Jeremy Lott says, "and offices provide mostly distractions."

If everyone in your workplace is wearing earphones, you're well acquainted with the problem. Dedicated employees hate open offices for good reasons. With loud-talking colleagues in a closely packed open office, software engineer Kurt Duncan says, "There are days when I want to throw things." The forced togetherness may be sociable and good for informal brainstorming, but it's also noisy and distracting - all the more so if offices have trendy concrete floors, soaring ceilings and closely packed work tables rather than carpets and cubicles. If I worked for Automattic, I wouldn't come in much either, even if I lived next door.

In fact, as those of us (just barely) old enough to remember clattering newsroom typewriters can attest, the old model of crowded space had an advantage over today's. The machine noise created a background rumble, making work conversations, including old-fashioned phone calls, less intrusive to those around you. Amid the quiet tapping of computer keys, every voice becomes a distraction. One perverse effect: Considerate co-workers avoid the productive chats their workspaces were supposed to foster. Serendipity dies when you have to reserve a conference room.

The problem is getting worse. In expensive urban markets, companies are saving money on office leases by engaging in a "densification" strategy. That's real-estate talk for less elbow room.

The average space per U.S. office worker has dropped from 250 to 300 square feet a decade ago to around 175 square feet in last year - and is still falling. Packing people closer together can let companies locate in nicer buildings or better locations, and employers often say they're looking for more collaborative spaces. But workers - at least those who've seen better - know the truth. These "collaborative" workspaces are like the hotels that say they're saving the planet, rather than money, by not washing your towels daily. It's a good story, maybe partially true, but not the real reason.

Tight budgets and crowded offices aren't new, of course. Century-old photos show workers sitting cheek-by-jowl at tables not that different from the ones at Automattic. But these weren't "knowledge workers," paid to solve difficult problems and come up with new ideas. They were on a white-collar assembly line, doing routine, repetitive and well-defined tasks: issuing invoices, recording payments, typing standardized letters, sending out orders. The office environment wasn't distracting because everybody had their heads down. Chatting was for breaks.

If you need employees to talk to one another and to do difficult brain work, however, maximizing togetherness isn't such a good idea. There's no single good answer to the remote-versus-office choice, only trade-offs. Listening to why dedicated employees want to escape the office suggests one way to make the trade-offs less extreme: If you want knowledge workers to report to the office, balance sociability and quiet.

Make it easy for them talk to one another - without interrupting their next-door neighbor's train of thought. And give them a place where they can hear themselves think.

• Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, The New York Times and Forbes. Her books include "The Power of Glamour" and "The Future and Its Enemies."

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