Forced Togetherness Fridays: Open Floor Plans and Sexism


[By Mozilla in Europe (Flickr: London Workspace) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Open floor plans are de rigeur in the high-tech industry, but they have also become trendy of late in other industries as well.  The are loved by some, hated by others. On a purely aesthetic level, I quite like open-floor-plan spaces.  After all, CatSynth HQ is a two-level open-plan space.  When they are modern, with lots of light, air, glass and metal, they can be quite beautiful and inviting.  The example from Mozilla’s UK office that opens this article is one such example.  On the other hand, some can just be boring and utilitarian, as if someone just took an old office space and knocked out some walls.


[By Benn (https://www.flickr.com/photos/benn/196447297/) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Aesthetics aside, the problems with open plans aren’t the spaces themselves.  It’s what happens when you put a lot of people in them.  For some, a busilling hive of activity with constant access to other people can be a boon, but for many is a source of intense anxiety and can feel even more confining than a small private office.

The problems of open office spaces can be especially challenging for women.  As reported in this article in Fast Co Design, the open design combined with everyday sexism can exacerbate the difficulties or challenges that women face in the workplace:

Fascinatingly, the study did not start out as an examination of gender specifically–it was meant as an examination of how workplace culture shifts when office design changes radically. It was only when Hirst, who conducted interviews on-site and spent a lot of time observing the workplace, began to feel pressure to dress in a more feminine way herself that she began to wonder about it. “She was surprised by the unusual amount of care she took over her own appearance, a degree of self-consciousness that she found burdensome as time progressed,” the researchers write. “To ‘fit in’ with the modern, clean aesthetic of the building itself and a dress code that was widely adopted, she departed from her usual preference for wearing jeans and no makeup; adopting a smart trouser suit and putting on makeup.”

Many of the examples in the main article as well as a follow-up featuring stories from readers focus on the extra pressure women feel about their appearances in these environments.  Interestingly, my own experience is somewhat different, but retains the overall sense of pressure.  I usually dress up and always wear makeup for the office, because I enjoy it and it makes me feel good.  But I do feel very self conscious in the open spaces in different ways.  First, I am worried about how mistakes or faux pas may be visible.  And in the world of high-tech, the almost religious embrace of casualness and the way many men, even in leadership, treat their slovenly appearance as a badge of strength or honor, can add subtle pressure.  As a woman, does one fit in, trying to be “one of the guys”, or be oneself and stand out in the sea of casualness?  I could write an entire article just about attire and dress codes – and I will – but there are other forms of sexism at work in open spaces as well.

The biggest problem that I have observed is the lack of privacy, even the privacy to conduct one’s own work efficiently, or conducting those aspects of personal life such as doctors’ appointments or things with family and children, that one has an expectation, even a right, to do from the office. Some companies, including ones where I work, sometimes set aside small spaces, either completely or just slightly enclosed, but it may not be enough, as one reader, Jean A., related:

The open office layouts I’ve sat in have both had ‘privacy’ rooms available, though these tend to be used as one-on-one meeting places almost as frequently as they are used as rooms in which individuals can call someone or even just take a brief rest. One thing in particular that I have noticed is that I like to be able to schedule doctor’s visits (for myself and my mother, whom I care for) while viewing my work calendar so that I can try and avoid missing meetings, but there is really no way to effectively do that privately in an open office floor plan. I have to drag my laptop into the privacy room, hope that the wireless works in that room (which it only rarely does)…

Another reader describes how the lack of privacy in open spaces can exacerbate workplace bullying, as described by reader Elizabeth G:

“The open plan office was in a college and not only was it very exposing as the managers were in a mezzanine level and looked down on us but the desks were butted up against each other and in rows. There was absolutely no privacy, and judgments about folks were made that amounted to a kind of covert bullying. Any absences from the room were noted and commented on. There were two small meeting rooms but they required booking. There was no room to spread documents out if you needed to and anyone could see what was on your screen. Most of us adopted a kind of blindness/deafness to our neighbors. It was also noisy at times, which impacted our concentration or ability to conduct telephone calls. I stuck it out for a year but was relieved to leave.

I have myself experience the stress and drain that comes with the lack of privacy in open spaces, the constant feeling of being watched.  I have also had to deal with novel types of bullying that are rarer in closed spaces.  On several occasions at multiple companies, I found myself chatting with a colleague about a technical matter related to a task at hand, only to have a male colleage come charging over and offer his unsolicited opinion – the ubiquitous and annoying phenomenon of mansplaining.  Sometimes he would be wrong because of missing context, but this did not stop a confident and overbearing manner, which crosses the line into bullying.  One particular egregious example involved my explaining an iOS-specific design requirement to a colleague working deliving a graphic, when suddenly a business-focused male coworker came over and erroneously explained why I was wrong – on top of this, he didn’t even address me directly, just my male colleague at the neighboring desk.  Similarly, some workplace bullies (invariably male in my experience) will use the open space to verbally corner or humiliate a co-worker, something that is unpleasant even behind closed doors, but far worse when it is in view of the entire company.

Then there is the simple problem of constant distraction.  As someone who is trained to use her ears critically, it is difficult to not be distracted by constant conversations happening in an open space, some of which can even be amplified by the acoustic properties of the space.  It is possible to filter them out metally, but this takes a lot of energy that is then drawn away from actually getting work done.  Many companies, including the one I described in last week’s article, have taken to offering noise-cancelling headphones to workers.  While it does cut down on noise distraction, these is merely a band-aid on the problem, and a band-aid that can itself lead to other problems like ear fatigue.

These and other issues, not surprisingly, can lead to increased anxiety.  And while men and women both face anxiety in the workplace, women face the additional challenge of being scrutinized for any display of emotion or “losing one’s cool.”  Open floor planes often leave very little place to work out anxiety, take an emotional break, or simply hide when necessary.  There is the bathroom, and there is going outside.  I use both strategies, including going for long walks away from the office – something that itself can be scrutinized in places that prize forced togetherness.  Readers in the follow-up article also releated similar stories, and in this quote from Emily S:

“I was one of three women at the company. I struggle with anxiety, and the cramped, nowhere-to-hide office layout made matters worse. When I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I would walk a block to a hotel around the corner and hide out in their basement bathroom until things subsided.

“It wasn’t until after a few months of working there that I mentioned this to my other female coworkers and found that they, too, had ‘hiding spots.’ One had a sibling who lived nearby and would go to his apartment, another would go to a department store a few blocks away.

“When I left the company, I made a note in my exit interview that the office setup exacerbated my anxiety and suggested that more consideration be given to employee mental health. I’m not sure if anything changed, but I do know that in my current office–still an open floor plan, but much larger–where there are places to escape to (like sofas, or a phone booth), I’m much happier.”

Of course none of these issues are unique to open floor plans, and many aren’t caused by them.  Sexism and bullying is rampant in a great many environments including the virtual world.  But an open work place where one feels trapped in the gaze of others can make it far worse.  Like Emily in the last quote, I look to companies that offer a variety of heterogenous spaces, some private, as well as opportunities to be remote from co-workers.  And I appreciate companies that put a priority on their workers’ mental health and well being as part of their operations.  It remains to be seen how that plays out in particular in the “forced-togetherness-as-virtue” tech industry, and whether some firms move away from open plans towards more variety of spaces.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Quiet and Independent

The job-search and interview process is often full of strange twists and turns, and you often can’t tell in advance which company and role will end up being “the one”, and which ones won’t.  Even within a single job interview, that can be the case, as in the story told in this week’s article.

The office, a loft space in an older building, was gorgeous.  It was bright and minimalist, with lots of glass and metal details.  The furniture in the waiting area had a mid-century modernist vibe.  There was definitely an integrated aesthetic to the place – even extending into the bathrooms – and it was one that I liked.  There were also some concerning signs.  It was crowded, and particularly in the engineering sector, people seemed to be sitting a little too close together for my comfort.  I got the sense during the interviews that collaboration was highly valued – they even seemed to be proponents of the dreaded practice of pair programming in which pairs of software engineers formally work together on a problem.  Now there is nothing wrong with working together, getting an extra pair of eyes on a piece of code, but only when it’s informal and infrequent.

But the technical portions of the interview put me at ease.  The questions were challenging and esoteric, but I was able to handle most of them, even surprised my interviewers in getting a couple of tough Android questions right.  As a bonus, the interviewer from outside the domain asked questions about mathematics and high-performance signal processing which gave me a chance to show off a bit.  So when I got the call back a day later from the recruiter that I had impressed them technically and that they wanted me to come back in for the next steps I was excited and put aside my concerns.  The next steps involved having lunch with the Android team and meeting one of the co-founders.  The lunch went well – it was great to see that my potential teammates included two other women – and I felt relaxed, even a bit boisterous as they asked about my music and such.  The meeting with the co-founder/CTO was a more serious affair, but also positive.  He had an affable but businesslike and direct manner, and at the conclusion of our conversion he said he could see me working there – he also shared that while they offered lunches, as a policy they did not offer dinners, as they wanted to encourage people to go home and spend time with their families, etc.  This seemed sober and civilized, especially in comparison to where I had come from before.  And a final boost of confidence came as I was leaving and ran into the interviewer from the first round who had asked me the mathematics and low-level computing questions – he said he was definitely pulling for me.

There was only one more step: meeting the other co-founder/CEO, whose main focus would be to test for cultural fit.  I had some trepidation about that, but I respected their process, and I felt good enough about the previous rounds that I wasn’t too worried.  As soon as he entered the conference room where I was waiting, I could tell this was going to be very different.  Compared to everyone else I had already spoken to, including his co-founder, he had a very awkward manner.  He seemed to avoid eye contact with me, and his voice had a very flat contour – classic characteristics of someone who is “on the spectrum”, at least in the popular imagination.  It’s always a little weird for me to be more expressive one and the one who carries the energy for the conversation, but I did my best.  However, when in the middle of talking about myself and my work I mentioned that I like to work “quietly and independently” his body language went from flat to sullen.  He then asked what I meant by that, and I tried to answer truthfully and analytically, but it was clear this was the wrong thing to have said.  “Quiet and independent” was not going to be a cultural fit.  And a few days later, I got the notice that I was turned down.  They did not cite a reason or give any feedback, but it was clear in my mind that it most likely came down to those three little words “quiet and independent” in that last interview.

The question remains why?  Why would a culture of hyper-collaboration, proximity, and interaction trump getting things done?  I don’t have the answer to that, but I suspect they saw my professed independence as a liability for their organization.  A bit more sinister, I was left wondering if my response was seen more negatively because I was a woman.  I have observed that cultures that put a premium on teamwork and collaboration seem to expect women to be “even more so”; and that women are treated more severely for being contrarian or pushing back.  Again, I don’t know whether that played a role in this instance, but there were other instances where it most certainly did, and I will share in a subsequent article.

As for this particular job search, the same day I was notified that I was turned down for this position, I had an interview for another that led to an offer that turned out to be one of the best overall work experiences I have had.  As I said at the start, you never know how things will turn out.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Working to death, and when long hours work well.

One of the most commonly cited factors in workplace stress and dissatisfaction is long hours.  Long hours and late nights can cause many problems, some of them are direct impacts on the mind and body of the worker, but then it also ripples out to others through work-family balance, evening and nightlife industries, art, and more.  In an interview about his new book, Jeffrey Pfeffer describes these issues and how they are literally killing American workers.   We will discuss his book in more detail once I have read it – but something in the interview particularly spoke to me: the insidious ways that companies and leaders turn long hours into a virtue, or even a “cause”, rather than a business necessity, and make resistance a question of character instead of productivity.

Companies also play to our egos. They say, “What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you good enough? We’re a special organization. We’re changing the world and only certain people are going to be up for the task.” Who wants to admit they’re not good enough?

I have certainly come across examples of long-hours-as-cultural-virtue in my career.  It is especially appalling when the pressure for long hours in the office involves a lot of play time.  I have felt stuck with an office full of people who stop working but just won’t leave – instead, they start playing games, goofing off, but together as a team.  The pressure to at least pretend to conform by sticking around is strong and also stressful on mind and body.

But there are times when long hours of work are necessary, and when it’s necessary for getting things done, it can be made into an experience that is not only lower stress but even enjoyable its own way.  I illustrate this with an example from own recent experience and then unpack why it worked out well.  Our CEO had a major demo for a group of potential investors and business-development opportunities that was scheduled on short notice.  There was a specific list of features and improvements needed to our mobile app and they were needed in about 48 hours.  With this deadline and set of goals in hand, I made the decision – with the support of the VP of Engineering – to take it on myself because it played to my strengths and style: quick, efficient, targeted.  I got to work on it immediately and was able to focus – in part because the VP (who was also my immediate boss) ran interference for me on some of the usual distracting nonsense.  I enjoyed the challenge of working towards the goals and getting the tasks done one after another in sequence on my own.  Indeed, I didn’t notice at first that it was getting late and that the office was quiet and nearly empty except for myself, my boss, and two other colleagues who generally shifted their work days later than the rest of us (I don’t know why, and I also don’t care why).  When one of them distracted me, my boss ran interference again, and I was able to get things in a good place by the time I left at 8:30 PM.  I wasn’t physically and emotionally drained the way I had felt in other times at other jobs, but tired in a satisfied sort of way, as one does after a music performance or exercise.  The next morning, I came back refreshed and completed things around noon, with the somewhat slapstick scene of my loading it onto an iPhone and my boss and I wading into the middle of a busy San-Francisco street to hand it to the CEO as he rode by in an Uber (or Lyft, it doesn’t really matter here).  The aftermath was positive affirmation both from myself and my superiors.  At least for the remainder of that day.

So what made this instance of long hours work?  First, it was targeted towards specific goals that were challenging but doable.  I had autonomy to figure out how I was going to get them done – how to set up the challenges for myself – and to then execute.  And I was largely left alone to complete them.  The long hours were a side effect of my own choices, not something forced by social pressure or a sense of workplace virtue.  And when I found myself working late, it was quiet and those that were there were there for the sake of work, not because the team was their life.

What extrapolate from this personal story is that one of the ways we may be able to improve the workplace and make it physically and emotionally healthier is through more autonomy and less “team virtue” and social coercion.  We all what to get things done – most of us, at least – but we need to be able to figure out for ourselves how best to do that.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Rainy Afternoons

A rainy afternoon like this one at HQ can be a delight.  Listening to the polyrhythms of the droplets outside, the gray sky and the shadows, all from a warm comfortable space with a purring cat and favorite music.  It can be a great time for focusing on creative projects, or just lying around and experience the “disintegration of thought.”

Rainy days at an office can be more challenging, especially when said office is one of the worst offenders of “forced togetherness.”  I retreated into my work, getting better acquainted with the Swift programming language and listening to music on my headphones using the mobile music-play I was tasked with building.  To this day, I associate Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” with rainy days and the mental and personal space I created for myself.

In my mind, I was in a dank 1970s wood-paneled den with a stereo with large speakers – maybe a lava lamp or two – as the gentle rain outside provided a foundational background noise.  A bit melancholy but also happy and contented.  I also played a lot of Ornette Coleman on our app as I was building and testing it.  It was no accident that Lonely Woman rose in the play statistics against the insipid contemporary pop tunes form our top charts and staff picks.

Another aspect of rainy days at this particular office was that our external network often went down.  It is rather difficult to work at or run a technology company without internet, so this logically led to an exodus with most of us working from home the remainder of the day.  On one occasion, one of the co-founders exhorted us all to come with him to his apartment building with the selling point “we have a rec room!”   This was quintessential forced togetherness, as it is unclear what possible benefit a rec room would have to do with getting our work done.  Now I don’t know what was going through his mind – perhaps he was just lonely, and maybe he even thought he was being generous – but it was par for the course for a company whose culture seemed about hanging out together.  This was, after all, the same company with the coercive lunch behavior that I described in the previous installment of this series.  Even before joining, when I balked at an embarrassingly low offer, part of their response was a series of emails and links to blog posts of them hanging out and partying, presumably intended to show me “how cool they were.”  This should have been a red flag, but I did not take the warning.  A bit older and wiser, I do take such warnings very seriously now when I evaluate business and career opportunities.

However, it still remains an open question as to why young companies, particularly with young founders, tend to put such a premium on togetherness to the point where others are pressured to participate.  We will continue to unpack this in future installments of this series.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Beyond Zucktown

Facebook has been in the news quite a lot of late.  None of it for good reasons.  But buried amidst the articles on data privacy and the Cambridge Analytica scandal I found the story “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything Is Just Zucky.” in The New York Times. Basically, it discusses Facebook’s plans for a new community adjacent to its Menlo Park campus, with housing, shops, and such.

CA Highway 109As seen in the above screenshot from our Highway☆ app, Facebook’s campus is at the remote northern edge of Menlo Park, straddling the Bayfront Expressway (California Highway 84).  Even by the standards of sprawling Silicon Valley campuses, this one is isolated, with access primarily by car or company busses.  The proposed development, which is formally called “Willow Village” (Facebook dislikes the nickname “Zucktown”)  would be to its east, between CA 84, Willow Road (unsigned CA 114) and University Avenue (unsigned CA 109), and adjacent to the neighboring town of East Palo Alto. While ostensibly an open community with public access and some affordable housing units, it is clearly being designed for Facebook employees.  And although the benefits of living close to work – and cutting down on commutes – are abundant, there is a difference between living near work and living in work.  And that is why it touched a raw nerve with me.  One of my main critiques working the industry, besides the subtle but rampant sexism, is what I call forced togetherness.  In the culture of many tech companies, it isn’t enough to do good work every day or even work long hours.  There is tremendous pressure, implicit or explicit, to be socially present at all times, to treat the company as one’s community, one’s “life”.

Forced togetherness comes in much smaller ways than planned communities of coworkers.  At a previous job of mine in 2014 at a tiny startup, everyone ate lunch together almost every day.  Ostensibly, it was supposed to be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but it quickly became clear that Tuesday and Thursday were expected as well.  One day early when I politely passed on lunch – and was looking forward to going out by myself for a little bit – the CEO seemed perplexed and kept trying to offer one option after another for ordering lunch in.  I had to finally just say “Look, I’m a big girl, I can feed myself!”  This was met with some quiet and awkward laughter.  It’s not that lunch was mandatory, but there was a social expectation, and implicit coercion, that eating together was the right thing to do.

I have come to look for red flags in this regard.  In my current job search, another very small company reached out to me with an interesting opportunity.  But they were located in Redwood City.  I have more than once stated I would sooner move back to New York than take another job on the peninsula – but I played along and politely explained that I prefer to work in San Francisco proper, but did they have flexible or remote work options.  I got the following reply.

We do not do remote. It hinders the culture of the company we are building and we love hanging out with each other.

There are many good reasons that some companies require employees to be on site.  But what this message told me was that the policy was based not on a business or practical necessity, but on a virtue, a belief that this is how people should be.  It says they are more interested in a culture based on “hanging out with each other” than on “getting things done.” It says that to succeed in that culture, one must be someone that they like to hang out with.  And this suggests how cultures of forced togetherness go beyond just wiping out the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, but also how the monoculture of Silicon Valley is perpetuated.  If one is looking for “people we love to hang out with”, one is probably going to hire people that share a similar set of backgrounds, styles, and personalities.  Hence, we find bands of mostly young men of white, Indian, and East Asian backgrounds who perpetuate college dorm life into their post-collegiate adulthood.

Of course, these are just simply two anecdotes, along with the concept writ large in Facebook’s Willow Village.  I hope to dive deeper in these phenomena in future articles for the “Forced Togetherness Fridays” series, along with some positive stories of how things can go right instead of wrong with only a few cultural changes.  And I welcome thoughts from others as I move forward, either sharing your own stories of forced togetherness in the workplace, or even counter-arguments in its favor.  Until then, I plan to enjoy some quiet time working hard, by myself with just my cat for company.