Forced-Togetherness Fridays: Go Karts (and when team building goes wrong)

There is a flyer in the bathroom at work extolling the virtues of team-building activities and also listing some dos and don’ts, such as making sure it’s something that everyone can participate in, doesn’t cause difficulty or embarrassment for some members, etc. Reading this brought to mind an experience from over ten years ago that included the worst team-building event I have ever participated in.

At the time, I was a manager in a department with extremely high talent but low morale. There were many reasons for this, including workload, changing priorities, and toxic aspects of the company culture. In the midst of this, our director decided to hold a team-building event, an ostensibly fun outing at an indoor Go Kart track along US 101 in one of the towns south of San Francisco. For those who are not familiar with Go Karts, they are essentially mini cars that don’t have reverse, or even brakes just an accelerator and a steering wheel. They don’t reach particularly high speeds and drivers wear helmets and seat belts. So it’s generally a safe activity, but there is some element of risk. And it can get competitive very quickly.

Our own experience turned both highly competitive and somewhat risky rather quickly. After a few minutes of hanging out in the lounge and talking with colleagues, we were ushered into the car area for a quick orientation and safety drill, and then given our helmets and cars. And we were off and racing. It was a miserable experience from the start. The inability to use breaks, the clumsiness of the steering, and the inability to go into reverse after bumping into a track wall made it difficult and confusing. I decided it was just something to endure for as long as I needed to, and just proceed slowly and cautiously. Our race was the second, with the first one already confirming some of the worst competitive aspects of some members of our team. This included our department director, as well as some of the other “leaders” who engaged in macho trash talk and were clearly focused on winning. Not that some of the women weren’t having a great time: our team’s HR liaison was with us and she was clearly enjoying herself. And that’s all well and good, but none of it was team building.

I tried my best to be a good sport and play along, moving slowly and cautiously around the track as our more competitive members speed past. A screen announced the standings after each lap, and I was falling further and further behind. On one hand, I didn’t care. On the other, I was frustrated at the increased distance behind everyone else. This was a period of time where I was already feeling bullied and belittled by more aggressive colleagues and this experience was not helping. I decided to crank it up a notch, hit the accelerator, and give it one last good run.

I ran right into the wall at full speed. Actually, slightly under the wall, which was a rail with a large nerf-like baffle. My leg got wedged underneath. And remember, there is no reverse, so I had no way to back up and get out. Every attempt to get out only seemed to make things worse, as my leg got further stuck underneath. It was painful, and also terrifying. Finally, a worker made it out to the track and get me dislodged. Although in pain, I was able to walk and limped off the track, where I was severely chastised for going too fast.

Nothing was broken, but it was a small, deep, bloody gash. But it was painful. A bit of basic first aid and a bandage was all that was needed medically, and after about a week it mostly healed. But to this day, I have a small “depression” in my leg where the injury occurred.

gash in the leg

Fortunately, it’s not really visible to anyone who doesn’t know it’s there.

Back to the event itself. I was done for the rest of the day and wandered outside on the stoop of the building. The warm sunshine and the sound of traffic from 101 were emotionally soothing and a nice counterpoint to adrenaline-laced intensity and competition of the event. I also found two of my colleagues there who had opted out for various medical reasons. We struck up a nice and far-ranging conversation – I don’t remember what we talked about, but probably included music, theater, art, and technology. If there was any actual team building from this outing, it happened here next to parking lot with my colleagues who also were not participating in the main event. I would posit that there was no team building whatsoever from the main event. A few takeaways:

  • It was not something for everyone to participate in and enjoy. Some were left out for medical reasons, and some of us were clearly not going to enjoy it.
  • It was fiercely competitive. While competition can be fun – I certainly have a competitive streak myself – for many people it can be isolating.
  • It’s a risky-feeling adrenaline-rush activity, which is polarizing and isolating for those who do not thrive in such situations.
  • Team building should not leave a permanent scar, physically or emotionally.

A simple afternoon a bar or pub would have been much better from my perspective, or honestly anything else that made more of an effort to make everyone feel welcome and included.  I may not particularly enjoy karaoke, but can certainly have a good time and feel welcome.  Beyond these specifics on “team building”, the event sent to me and probably to others a really negative message about the company’s culture and values. Over the next year or so, these concerns were often borne out in the workplace, where bullying and competitiveness were not only tolerated but often rewarded. On the plus side, I did soon after this incident get a new director whose interest and temperament was much closer to my own 🙂

A Perfectly Clear Day 2018

Once again, it’s a perfectly clear day this year. Maybe a little haze, but otherwise a blue sky in San Francisco. But the sounds of the city are a bit sharper today, the foot traffic, the construction equipment, the screeching of the commuter rail and light rails pulling into their stations. And there is a bit of wistfulness, a bit of nostalgia in the most classical sense of the word.

A few things have brought 9-11 back to the fore the anniversary. First, there was the opening of the Cortland Street subway station which serves the 1 IRT line and which was pretty much destroyed in the attack. It’s the last major piece of the puzzle in the rebuilding of the neighborhood, which is a thriving and vital space that includes the transit center, the 9/11 Memorial, and of course 1WTC which has taken its proper place in the skyline.


[Photo by CatSynth]


[Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 2.0 ), via Wikimedia Commons]

Let’s take a moment to emphasize that the building is called 1WTC! It never was, and never will be, the so-called “Freedom Tower”, a name that was obnoxious, jingoistic, and rather gauche. Same thing for the attempts to call the date “Patriot Day”. I always detested that.

The other time bringing today into focus wasn’t 17 years ago, but last year. I was back in New York by coincidence, and the Towers of Light memorial loomed over us in both Manhattan and Brooklyn as we went about simply enjoying being in New York. I posted this picture at the time.

If there is a dominant feeling at the moment, it is more one of homesickness for my home city, the one that will always be The City. And that trip one year ago truly emphasized all its aspect. A wedding on Governors Island with both lower Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfront surrounding us. I rode a record number of subway lines (yes, I’m a total transit nerd). We wandered in Borough Park as well as my usual haunts in Downtown Brooklyn, Chelsea, the West Village, and the Bronx.

17 years ago, the dominant feelings were grief, anger, and (I’m not afraid to admit it) a desire for revenge. That revenge never came – it was twisted by the rest of the country into a nationalistic (and often tacky) morass that turned into multiple wars that left us and the world poorer. The rest of the country rattles its swords, waves its flags, and the great cities suffer. I do hope one day the radical fundamentalism and radical nationalism that grip so many places in the world, including our own country in this moment, will dissipate. And I hope to return home again.

CatSynth 12th Anniversary

It’s our twelfth anniversary!  It’s hard to believe that this little project I started as a lark in 2006 is still going and expanding.  Here is that first picture of Luna that went up on July 19, 2006!

As always, we look to the anniversary as a moment for reflection and for changes.  We don’t have compiled detailed stats this year, but we do have several high-level milestones.  Most notably, we launched CatSynth TV last October, and since then have shared 74 videos! More are on the way.  We have continued to develop our apps, including the original CatSynth: The App! and Highway☆, though there is so much more we want to do there, both with existing and new apps.  And Sam Sam has blossomed into the new star of CatSynth!  With so many facets competing for our attention, there has been less time for the long-form reviews that once dominated this site, though we still write long-form articles when we can.  So with that, we make some announcements:

  • Sam Sam finally takes her rightful place on the masthead alongside the late great Luna!  It’s a change that is long overdue.  And appropriately, we are featuring one of her scratch’n’roll poses.
  • We are going to open up the site to new voices.  We have already had a couple of guest music reviews, and of course the semi-regular Mensa Cats cartoon series.  This is going to expand in the coming months.  If you have an idea for an article you would like to contribute, please let us know.
  • And as always, please keep sending us your cat-and-gear pics.

So please join Sam Sam and me in celebrating twelve years of CatSynth!  We look forward to sharing many more with all of you.

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam: At Rest

It’s been a stressful few weeks for us at CatSynth.  Not bad per se, just stressful.  During times like this, I often lie down to reduce psychic entropy and practice disintegration of thought.  And Sam Sam is often lying down next to me.

Sam Sam Curled up to sleep

Like most cats, Sam Sam is quite good at napping.  One might even say she is an “expert sleeper”, but that might cause confusion with one of the modular-synth manufacturers we sometimes feature.  She does have her own unique way of curling up, though, pull her tail close to her head and sometimes even grabbing it with her paw.  It’s adorable, and it never fails to make me smile.

Sam Sam holding her tail

She enjoys the soft blankets, either the burgundy or gray.  But she almost always chooses the same corner of the bed.  This is not surprising, as all of us at CatSynth are creatures of habit.

We hope you all have a relaxing and enjoyable weekend.  For us, it will be a bit stressful once again, but with very focused study and practice on both the technological and musical fronts.  But I will do my best to keep Sam Sam’s example in mind as I work through it.  We can learn much from our cats!

 

Luna’s 13th Gotcha Day (in memoriam)

June 10 was Luna’s Gotcha Day.  For many years, it was one of the most joyous days of the calendar.  Since her passing in 2016, it has been challenging and melancholy. There is rarely a day when I don’t think about my special little girl and soulmate of almost 12 years.

Grief is a nonlinear process. The memories of her life, and of her loss, have mostly been integrated.  I can casually see pictures on a regular basis of her and remain in the moment, but scrolling back through them in a deliberate process this morning brings some tears.  CatSynth HQ is very much Sam Sam’s now, and we respect her territory (and spoil her rotten while doing so).  Yet even she sometimes seems to sense a presence of a former kitty in some of the corners and crevices that defy cleaning.

There is so much I miss about Luna.  Her beauty and elegance, her shy but sweet nature.

And she was fiercely territorial, especially when it came to me.  She did not like to share, but she made me feel very loved.  She could sit patiently while I made weird sounds in the studio.  And despite being a “strictly indoor” cat, she loved going outside on the patio after we moved to San Francisco.

Regular readers know I am not at all religious.  And I don’t have a particular notion of an afterlife.  But I do like to sometimes think about Luna taking her place among those I have lost over the years, mostly human friends and family.  The visualization is of them all standing and waiting patiently, a little black cat in front of the much taller people.  I also take comfort in the Rainbow Bridge, and in the community of cat bloggers who have loved and lost over these many years.

I do not expect that the grief will ever disappear entirely.  And that’s ok.  We continue.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Depression

With multiple suicides of noted figures making headlines this week, it is no surprise that depression, too, has been a major topic of discussion, both in the news and on social media.

First, let’s look at depression itself.  I am not a psychologist, nor a licensed professional of any sort when it comes to mental and emotional health.  I am, however, someone who has dealt with depression.  Mostly mild, but sometimes quite severe.  And it’s different from sadness.  Sadness is a rich feeling, albeit a deeply painful one at times.  Depression is a hole, an absence of feeling that can be very debilitating and frustrating.  Most of the time, it is just something that comes and goes periodically, like the tides, seasonal flooding, or the marine layer that often blankets San Francisco.  Sometimes it is the byproduct of prolonged stress, from a workplace, from relationships, or really anything.  When Luna was diagnosed with cancer, and when she later passed away, there was tremendous sadness and grief.  But the depression is separate from sadness, and in the case of Luna’s illness, it was from the stress and sometimes a sense of helplessness that came in between those events.

Another thing that can cause or exacerbate depression is a sense of being trapped.  This can be confinement to a physical space, but also mental or metaphoric.  The sense of being “trapped” in the wrong birth gender would be one example, as would being trapped in a bad relationship (a long time ago), or any number of negative workplace experiences over the years.  It can come from being trapped by others expectations, or fear of being judged and shamed for something as simple as deciding what to eat for lunch.  One can also feel trapped by negative emotions like sadness and the fact that our culture sanctions very few outlets for them outside of grief.

The most important thing, I have found, is to reduce the sense of feeling trapped.  Like reducing artificial barriers on a shoreline, it allows the emotions to ebb and flow more gradually and naturally, and not get caught up as easily in dangerous cycles.  That could be something small, like going out for a walk and getting fresh air, or deciding to leave a bad job.  It could be a good cry – I find adorable pictures of cats can be a good way of inducing a depression-cleansing cry.  But more often than not, the activity requires a fair amount of space and solitude.  Like a road trip, playing one of the synthesizers, or cuddling with my cat.

Well-intended inquiries and offers of company can actually have the opposite effect and can lead to feeling even more trapped, stressed, and depressed. In a sense, this is bringing a “forced togetherness” situation into the picture.  The best thing to do to help, outside of a genuine crisis situation, is to let people know you are there if needed, and then wait for your friend or loved one to take the lead.  Don’t assume, and don’t treat the depression as something that needs to be tamped out.  Do listen, because sometimes all a depressed person needs at the moment is to be heard and acknowledged, not to take action.  And let them tell you what they need: if it’s company,  help with a particular problem, or simply to be left alone and to feel free to be themselves and do what they wish without judgment.

Of course, none of this applies in a genuine crisis situation, where the immediate needs of the crisis take precedent.  While we sometimes have to make a call on whether a situation is a crisis, but handling it is often best left to professionals if possible.

The other caveat is that everything I have described is deeply individual and likely to be different for different people.  But that is the most important point.  Everyone is different and experiences depression differently.  And attempting to force the same solutions or advice can only make things worse.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: The Circle

Multiple friends and readers have noted the similarities in my observations and critiques of “forced togetherness” in the tech industry to the eponymous tech giant in The Circle, Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel.  So in today’s edition of the series, we examine The Circle more closely, and what we can learn from its example.  We are going to focus specifically on the Eggers novel and not the film adaptation starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks – and there will be some spoilers, though we won’t give away the ending.

The Circle chronicles a critical stage of the evolution of the company of the same name, as seen through the eyes of a young newcomer, Mae Holland.  The book can largely be divided into the overlapping stories of Mae’s experience working inside the company, and the larger implications of The Circle’s ambitions and vision on society as a whole.  The two are intertwined, as The Circle intends to remake society into a utopia based on its own internal culture.  But that internal culture, especially in the novel’s first act, is what most concerns us here.>

We first encounter Mae, a recent college grad, as she is leaving behind her dead-end job in her tiny hometown in the Central Valley.  The town, Longfield, is described as being halfway between Fresno and Tranquility, suggesting that it might be modeled after the real town of Kerman, California.  But I digress.  Mae scores an opportunity to work at The Circle via her friend and former college roommate Annie, who is a senior member of The Circle’s leadership focusing on regulatory issues.

The company’s campus has details that could easily have been drawn from the real-life headquarters of Google or Facebook.  Similarly, the company’s culture seems like Google or Facebook on steroids.  There are food and recreational opportunities everywhere, including regular parties and over-the-top live entertainment from well-known bands.  Indeed the fitness, medical facilities, and cafeterias seem mundane compared to the over-the-top cultural aspects that scream “forced togetherness.”  It is clear from the start that the goal is to keep Circlers on campus as much as possible, whether or not they are working or playing.  Perhaps this hit a little closer-to-home for me than other readers, as I see this as the most cynical and insidious aspect of tech-company culture.

We see the culture of The Circle seeping into Mae’s actual job, which is as a customer-experience agent.  The job itself is straightforward and reasonable, she answers questions from clients (think folks like us who sometimes buy Facebook ads, incorporate Paypal payments, etc.). Clients can rate her service, and that is factored into her job performance, with the goal to get as close to a 100% rating as possible.  She also gets pinned to clients she has previously helped, allowing her to develop relationships with them. There is a steady queue of incoming requests.  Stressful and high-pressured, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary for work.  Things get darker as Mae discovers that her social participation in life at The Circle is judged as significantly, of not more than, her job performance.  After neglecting to set up her social profiles (similar to a Facebook profile but with internal-and-external facing personae), she is chastised by the annoyingly perky social-media representatives who come to make sure she follows through and sets it up.  She is scolded for not being on campus over a weekend.  Mind you, not that she wasn’t working, but that she wasn’t present.  When she explains that she was visiting her parents and her father’s multiple sclerosis, the topic turns to why she hasn’t joined any Circle online groups for children of people with MS.  Even her solitary joy of kayaking is questioned by one of the representatives, who not only pressures her to join kayaking-enthusiast groups but even suggests they should do so together as this is a passion of his as well.  Later on, Mae is called into her boss’ office who says she is doing a great job but then gives her a serious dressing down about the fact that she is falling behind on social media participation – people at the Circle are ranked by a social-media participation score.  Again, she is scolded for being off campus, visiting her family, and missing yet another “awesome” party.

While reading all the social pressure and lack of personal autonomy being thrown at Mae, I felt my own heart race and my own anxiety levels rise.  Here was everything I rail against in this series, taken to its utmost extreme.  Don’t get me wrong, the campus is amazing and beautiful and full of opportunities – and the fact that Mae’s father finally has access to state-of-the-art care for his MS is great.  But these benefits come at the cost of a lack of boundaries and personal autonomy, things we learn are anathema to The Circle’s vision and business model as well as company culture.

Things come to a head in both the business and personal aspects.  The Circle has developed tiny low-cost and low-powered HD camera that can be placed anywhere or on anyone.  They launch an initiative to have elected leaders “go transparent”, i.e., wear a live-streaming video camera at all times.  Meanwhile, Mae’s job is going well as she determines to rise to the top in the company’s social-media rankings, but her life back home is falling apart.  The cameras and such are quite intrusive for her parents, and her ex-boyfriend (and professional Luddite) Mercer breaks off his contact with her after her attempt to promote his deer-antler-chandelier business backfires spectacularly.  This leads her to seek solace in her one solitary joy, kayaking.  It’s late and she steals a kayak from her friends who run a small rental business.  It is foggy that night, but she paddles out far into the bay and ends up near the real-life Red Rock Island and Richmond-San-Rafael Bridge.  I could see myself seeking out a similar solitary passion in such a stressful situation, such as a “fun with highways” trip.  Unbeknownst to her, there was one of The Circle’s tiny cameras near the kayak shop, and her entire caper is recorded and seen by the company’s leaders.  Not only does this get her in trouble for potentially committing a crime, it also leads to another round of recriminations about her autonomy and distance from the rest of the company.

As Act 1 of the novel comes to a close, Mae makes a fateful decision to salvage her career by going “transparent.”  Act 2 follows the transparent Mae has she live-streams life on the campus and gets intertwined with things darker and darker about The Circle’s dystopian ambitions, which include a devotion to transparency and demonization of privacy.  Forced-togetherness becomes not just part of the company culture, but the vision for society as a whole!  Everyone connected at all times, full transparency, no boundaries, no privacy.  This ghastly possibility is what The Circle promotes as a utopia.

When Mae was suffering under the cultural pressure of The Circle in Act 1, she remained a sympathetic character.  But as she embraces The Circle’s internal and external vision, she becomes a much less sympathetic character, and I began to distrust and even detest her.   But at the same time, her ex Mercer, who is set up as the skeptical foil to The Circle’s vision, is not particularly likable, either.  He is a self-righteous prig.  Indeed, in the end, there is not one character who comes out positive.  Dislikable and untrustworthy characters are a mainstay of Eggers’ fiction and make for great reading.  But in this cas,e they hit close enough to home to be rather disconcerting.

It is, of course, important to remember that The Circle is fiction.  None of the campuses I have visited, none of the businesses I have seen in depth, are nearly as sinister, though each has aspects that could lead to The Circle, both inside and out.  I hope we can figure out how to balance these competing challenges and they become closer to reality without going completely to the extreme in the other direction.  We don’t want to become Mae, but we shouldn’t have to become Mercer to avoid becoming her.  The technology is amazing, as long as we retain control and autonomy around it.  And we see this playing out in real life right now (e.g., consider the recent privacy scandals involving Facebook) and with increasing public awareness. So there is hope.

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.