America’s most coveted workplace item? A door to slam in co-workers’ faces! The Journal’s Vanessa Fuhrmans reported last week that executives are tired of the egalitarian, open-floor planning craze, in which they are forced to share desk space, lunchtime aromas and even conversations with low-ranking employees, and are demanding a return to the era of private offices, where today’s workplace leaders will be able to shut the door and save the company in blissful, creative silence. Or, nap.
Critics claim open floor-planning hasn’t been the innovation-booster it was sold to be—all that insidious mingling instead led to distractions and low productivity, not to mention insufferable small talk about CrossFit. The plea for private offices follows the backtracking of another modern workplace standard: remote employees. Just recently,IBM boss Ginni Rometty blew on the corporate conch shell and called the company’s thousands of remote workers back to the reef. The idea, IBM explained, is to bring all that talent together and build a collaborative workplace where innovation happens—at least until everyone gets sick of it, and demands private offices.
As someone who has worked remotely, and also at a desk, a cubicle, and, glamorously, an office with a window that looked directly into the window of the office bathroom, I see all sides here. To be honest, I’m perfectly capable of screwing around and not doing my work while sitting at home, elbow-to-elbow with my colleagues, or behind a hermetically sealed door. I have days working at home when noon rolls around, and I have to remind myself I haven’t put on pants. There are also days in the office I would do anything not to put on pants.
But if we’re really turning back the clock here, to the retro American office environment, where status was conferred by getting your name etched on a door, and “remote worker” was just another term for “semi-employed,” we should be demanding a few more things:
- The return of the bar cart.Seriously. We need it. If our bosses are going to summon us back to headquarters, then promptly retreat to their wood-panelled lairs, the least they can do is return the good old-fashioned bar cart. I’m too young to have been in an office for the bar-cart’s boozy prime, but I’ve heard all the stories about how great it was to hear those little wheels rolling around 4:30 p.m., how everyone at work got so excited, like kennel puppies at feeding time. Of course, those pleasant bar-cart stories led to other, less pleasant bar-cart stories, which were a big reason why the bar cart went away. But why not give it another try? I’m not asking for much here. A bar cart in 2017 doesn’t have to be the King Cole at the St. Regis. Just a modest cart with whiskey, bourbon, vodka, gin, tequila, rum, cognac, champagne, a selection of domestic and Europeans reds and whites, vermouth, triple sec, Midori, Frangelico, bitters, and all appropriate mixers and fruits. That’s it. Maybe some mixed nuts.
(If you’re a CEO, think about all the gloomy emails you have to send these days, telling workers about downsizing and budget reductions and how this year’s holiday party will not take place at Applebee’s, but in a parking lot behind the Applebee’s. Now imagine what it will be like to send out an email about the return of the bar cart, what a hero you will be in the office… for at least a couple hours, until everyone starts talking behind your back again. Do it!)
- Smoking.Now I know what you’re thinking: Hey, man, smoking cigarettes in the office is illegal. And it is. But so is microwaving fish in the break room, and your co-workers commit that crime every day. I am old enough to have begun in journalism when it was still acceptable to smoke in the newsroom, and I have fond memories of my beloved first editor standing over my shoulder, watching me type, telling me to move this word or that word, as the end of his Camel Light continued to burn and lengthen and finally ashing on my shoulder, whereupon he would brush it away like the father figure I hoped he was. I’m not complaining. It was status in our newsroom: We counted how many times we got ashed on.
I also remember offices with smoking rooms, and how those smoking rooms became, in effect, influential secret societies, with their own rules and gossip and even marriages. Employees took up smoking just so they could hang out in the smoking room. Talk about the collaborative spirit! Yes, there are some health concerns, but those blueberry scones in the morning meeting aren’t going to lengthen your life, either.
- Weekends.Yes: it’s more likely we get smoking back than our weekends back. But no harm in asking. Working stiffs of a certain age will remember what it was like to leave the office on a Friday at 5 p.m.—or, hey, a Thursday at 4 p.m.—and not think a single thought about the office or anyone inside it until returning to the desk on Monday. What a perk it was! Today there are no boundaries; technology and guilt have conspired to make the weekend a hellish extension of the work week. And many of us have accepted it. We’re such suckers! Remember when people used to send emails on a Saturday that read, “Sorry for emailing on a Saturday, but…”? Now nobody does that—even though we all know the truth, that everyone hates the interruptions, including the boss, and nothing ever gets accomplished by those weekend email chains except to give everyone a throbbing case of paranoia. I’m telling you, if the American workplace will just give me the weekend, I’ll never ask for an office with a door, or anything else. Well, OK: the bar cart. I would really like that.
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