Part 1 – Busyness is Progress
“We just got a new cat named Tinkles, it’s a Siberian which is supposed to be great for allergies, and my friend told me about this local guy that trains cats to pee in toilets and so…”
“That episode was so sick bro, the whole time I was just like ‘What is going on here?’, and then when he jumped out of nowhere and just straight up decapitated the one dude I was just like…”
As usual, Huey Smith found himself in the midst of multiple conversations at work. No one was talking to him, but the close proximity and lack of partitions resulting from the Open Office floor plan precluded any privacy.
On the bullpen (the term for the work area) wall across from him was one of the encouraging promotional posters for the Open Office, simply the words “The Open Office is watching you!” with the two O’s in the likeness of eyes that always seemed to follow you and a little smile.
Open Office Principles (OOPs) dictated that if an employee wanted to work without distraction, they should make use of noise-cancelling headphones. Though the conversations of some particularly loud individuals could only be drowned out at painful (and distracting) volumes, OOPs noted that a steady loss of hearing would eventually result in the issue working itself out.
In theory such distractions were already eliminated by white noise. Branded as the cure-all for noise pollution, this fight-fire-with-fire approach entailed a system of little pods suspended from the ceiling throughout the office that emitted an airplane cabin-like roar 24/7. Who could have predicted that, in response to their speech being drowned out, people would speak louder?
Of course there were also visual distractions to deal with such as people walking by or gesticulating in conversation, which some employees tried to address by wearing horse blinders. These, however, did little for the intentional attempts at getting your attention that being out in the open seemed to provoke such as tapping your shoulder, waving a hand in your face, or silently hovering behind you until noticed in the corner of your eye.
OOPs dictated that if an employee needed to avoid these distractions as well they could avail themselves of a “breakout” room, a type of small room with none of the equipment one needed and at least one transparent glass wall, similar to how pets are displayed at the store. If indeed one was willing to carry all their equipment and materials to a breakout room, however, they were generally occupied by management or the otherwise politically-favored.
Huey closed his eyes for a moment and let the talking, typing, clicking, coughing, sneezing, nose blowing, phone ringing, gum chewing, humming, desk drumming and white noise of Floor 65 Building 6 wash over him. So far he’d spent the morning typing out gibberish code and deleting it to appear productive. He hadn’t arrived early enough in the morning to avoid the activity and get useful, focused work done, so he’d be staying late tonight. Once Susan and Ricky showed up, two of his more animated coworkers, productivity was all but lost.
Luckily, that was well in line with OOPs, specifically with the OOPs principle of Doublework, which said that a good employee took at least twice as long as needed to get anything done. If you truly loved your work then naturally you wanted to savor every bit of it. And it was necessary for employees, at least the politically-unfavored ones, to always appear to be working. Any downtime or lack of busyness was viewed with suspicion. As the first of the Company’s slogans went, “Busyness is Progress”.
Sighing, Huey opened his eyes and stood up. Last night he’d decided to quit, and he’d already given notice to his supervisor. Now he just needed to talk to Marge, the head of HR, who was expecting him shortly in her office on the next floor up. Not much was known about her outside the Company’s inner circle except that she was the architect of OOPs and was in some ways more powerful than the CEO himself. Recently there had been whispers of Marge working on a big update to OOPs, something involving new HR practices related to turnover reduction.
In all likelihood the update would be another rehash of seating arrangements in the name of encouraging collaboration, creativity, cross-pollination, and a host of other words that were stymied by teams being too “siloed”. It seemed staff meetings, staff retreats, traditional meetings, chance meetings in the lunch room, web conferencing, email, Slack, phones, and other forms of interaction weren’t sufficient for producing the innovation that management envisioned. So sometimes Huey was instructed to sit by other programmers, sometimes by sales or marketing. Sometimes he had a long term desk, sometimes he had to sit somewhere new each day. Every such update to OOPs was lauded as a significant improvement.
But what remained more or less constant was the level of collaboration. It was difficult to focus on a thoughtful discussion when multiple less-thoughtful discussions were happening around you, and people interested in thoughtful discussion were generally thoughtful enough not to disturb everyone around them with something that only applied to one or two people. Therefore, the thoughtful ended up barricading themselves behind headphones and horse blinders, while the less-thoughtful held perpetual court. Officially, collaboration was at an all time high.
In the past Huey would have double-checked that there was nothing comprimising open on his computer before walking away, but casual web surfing and the like wasn’t an option these days, at least not for him. Everyone’s screens were easily visible to numerous people at any given moment, and any off-task activity that management didn’t spot themselves still inevitably reached their ears via certain coworkers.
Huey walked past another informational poster on the bullpen wall, this one with the Company’s three slogans:
As he walked along he noted a number of empty desks. Some people were simply out sick due to the endless cycles of illness that such close quarters facilitated, but there had also been lots of turnover recently, especially among employees whose work required focus. By contrast, the aforementioned less-thoughtful employees, especially the willing enforcers of Company orthodoxy, seemed to have grown bolder in their chatter. Yet whenever they spoke of their workload they were always unbelievably busy. This was another meaning of Doublework, the ability to be busy and not busy simultaneously, though it didn’t seem to apply to everyone equally.
Huey passed by the lunch room, the crown jewel of the Open Office. It wasn’t so much a room as it was a corner of the space contiguous with the bullpen. But it was a veritable treasure trove of free snacks, free beer, a massive coffee machine, and the pièce de résistance, a ping pong table. If anyone had a complaint about anything, this was management’s trump card. Who would dare to object to any workplace inadequacy when you, a grown adult, were allowed to play ping pong at will? And best of all, whenever anyone played, everyone else at work got to listen in on the fun as well.
Huey idly wondered what Marge would have to say as he took the elevator up, passed through security, and approached her office. Like all senior management, she had an office of her own hidden well away from any Open Office environment. A real office too, spacious, with lavish furnishings and no transparent walls. Technically, senior managers still had their designated desks out in a bullpen somewhere, but Huey had never seen them there. And he’d heard that they often just worked remotely.
Huey reached Marge’s door and knocked. It was real wood, heavy and ornately carved. At hearing an enthusiastic, “Come in!” he entered. In contrast with the blinding surgical lighting throughout the rest of the building, this room was lit quite comfortably, and his eyes needed a moment to adjust. There was movement behind him, and as the door closed a large hand pressed something to his face. He struggled against the iron grip, but his vision quickly blurred and his eyes rolled up in the back of his head. Darkness.
Part 2 – Privacy is Depravity
Huey opened his eyes. A large overhead light illuminated his immediate surroundings in a harsh white, outside of which he could see nothing. He was cold and had the sense that the room was quite large. He tried to turn his head but leather restraints all up and down his body fixed him to the chair. Moving just his eyes, he saw Marge seated to his left beside some sort of control panel. He also noticed his head had been shaved and there was something bulky and metallic strapped to it. Marge was patiently watching him with a small smile. He looked into her eyes and shivered.
“Oh good, you’re finally awake. You’re a lucky man Huey. You’ve been selected to participate in our newest employee retention program.” Her voice echoed in the darkness.
Huey could move his jaw just enough to speak. “Well that sure is great to hear Marge, but before you get too excited, I actually already made up my mind and gave my two weeks…”
Marge silenced him with a wave of her hand. “I know very well what your intentions were Huey. That’s what makes you the perfect candidate. Don’t worry, if you decide once our session has concluded that you’d still like to move on from the Company, you’ll be perfectly free to do so. In the meantime, we’ll be doing a bit of a deepdive into your mind to figure out what exactly the problem is and see if we can’t recalibrate your work-life balance. To start things off, let me ask you Huey: What are your feelings towards the Open Office?”
Huey quietly sighed before answering in monotone, “I think it’s a stimulating, collaborative environment that allows us to innovate at…” Huey’s mind was flooded with thoughts. Silly, trivial experiences. Snapshots of meetings and phone calls and emails pumped into his mind at supersonic speed. Ricky’s opinion of a new television show. A funny cat picture posted on Slack. Susan’s country music ringtone. His attention was being forcefully yanked from one thing to another by the millisecond. After what seemed like weeks the concentrated flood of Open Office experience slowed to a trickle and he began to regain his bearings. He noticed now a dial on Marge’s machine that went from 0 to 100.
“That was 60. And that’s what lying will get you, Huey. Now let’s try again: what do you really think about the Open Office?”
Huey watched Marge’s hand resting on the dial. It was currently at 10. Scenes of office activity were still flowing through his mind, but they were in the background and he was able to gather his thoughts. “I hate it.”
“Good. Much better. And what would you prefer instead of the bullpen arrangement? A cubicle? Or even an office, perhaps?”
“Well, since you asked, I’d actually like to work remotely. See, there’s no reason my work can’t be done from home, what with email and Slack and everything, and it’s pretty easy for my supervisor to verify I’m doing what I’m supposed to based on what I submit for review.”
Marge was smiling, but the smile didn’t touched her eyes. “I’m sure you would like that, wouldn’t you Huey. Why do you think it is that we categorically deny any such requests?”
“Because you’re paranoid, and being able to see our screens all the time makes you feel better?”
Marge turned the dial up to 20. “Not a terrible response, but incomplete. Surely you’ve noticed that we allow some people to slack off without reprimand. What accounts for that, Huey, if indeed we’re paranoid about employees being off task?”
The distractions in his head were growing louder and rising to the surface now, but he forced them aside. “Those are the people that suck up to you and help keep everyone in line with Company orthodoxy. They’re the ones that speak up at meetings to say how great OOPs is, then spend half the day chatting about their plans for the weekend. But to be honest Marge, they’re just one part of your scheme. See, you’ve got this all mapped out. You join the Company and sell everyone on the Open Office concept for the new building, right, and the Board loves you because not only do you save money up front by cramming us all into one tiny space, but you make the Company look hip and trendy too.”
“Now in theory, if the Open Office isn’t working, the employees should be up in arms about it. But first, the office design curbs opposition by turning us against each other through a culture of surveillance where everyone can see and report on everyone else’s activities at any time, and even a few minutes of web surfing to rest your mind can come back to haunt you. In fact, that’s probably why you haven’t resorted to cameras or spyware yet. Why would you when the employees willingly do the spying for you, and you can avoid setting yourself up as the bad guy? Second, the office design further turns us against each other by forcing us to constantly endure all the unavoidable distractions and other nonsense from our coworkers while we desperately try to finish our work in time to leave and experience some shred of a personal life before we have to do it all over again the next day. And third, to put a happy face on the whole thing, you have your sycophants loudly broadcasting their approval of OOPs at every opportunity they get. Your Doublework and your “Busyness is Progress” are just means of justifying the resulting inefficiency and giving the zealots a free pass to do as they like.”
“Sure, the Open Office makes most people miserable and chases the productive employees away, but what do you care when you’re still getting raise after raise? You just replace the burnouts and churn through the next batch of folks just the same. Better that way, so no opposition has a chance to coalesce. And if the Company collapses under the weight of its own incompetence, so what? You just jump ship and start it all over again at some other gullible place that swallows your Open Office bullshit whole.”
Marge’s smile almost looked sincere as she turned the dial up to 30. “Oh my, what a delightful mouthful that was. So it seems you’re upset that I’m sacrificing everyone’s productivity for my own professional gain, is that it? Well then let me ask you this: How do you know that’s my motivation, Huey? Are you certain that’s why OOPs was developed and implemented?”
Huey struggled to wade through the stream of artificial distraction being pumped into his mind and compose his thoughts. A door slamming. Ricky drumming on his desk. Susan’s evaluation of her lunch. He had to focus. “Well you certainly weren’t motivated by science. Go ahead and read any study out there on the Open Office.”
Marge continued, “I think you might be overlooking a few possibilities here. For example, perhaps I’m just not that bright. Maybe I evaluated the Open Office concept to the best of my ability, and despite all the scientific evidence, despite no employees asking for it, and despite no evidence to suggest collaboration or innovation was in short supply, maybe I still drew the conclusion that this was a good move for our organization.”
“Or did you consider that I might have connections with the companies in charge of designing and building out our office space, that their leadership might be friends of mine whose backs I wanted to scratch?”
“Or perhaps, and I think this explanation will appeal to you, perhaps I have unresolved psychological issues I refuse to acknowledge or address stemming from a neglectful childhood, and consequently my empathy for others, particularly those lower than me on the corporate heirarchy, is alarmingly low. Yes, perhaps I’m a raging sociopath that has no business making decisions that dramatically impact people’s lives, but I do so anyways because I enjoy benefiting at others’ expense and watching them suffer and fight amongst themselves for scraps like the soulless muppets they are.”
“Or maybe there is no explanation Huey, and none of this makes any sense. Maybe it’s just a messy situation in a crazy, chaotic world with no clear high-level explanations available. Maybe it just sort of happened, the inevitable result of one cause and effect after another on the subatomic level, and now here we are.”
Huey strained against his restraints, testing for any looseness. “Yeah that’s great Marge, and this has been a super talk, but you know what, I think I’m still gonna have to pass on the whole “working here” thing.”
Marge turned the dial to 40. “You have to admit you’re rethinking your position Huey. I think you’re starting to realize now you don’t actually know why things are the way they are. There’s a whole complex world of decisions that you know nothing about being made by people you’ve never met. You’ve simply crafted a story that best suits your proclivity for righteous indignation. Which begs the question, Huey, if there might not be one more possible explanation for my actions. Can you guess what that might be?”
“That you’re Ashton Kutcher in a wig and Freddy Krueger mask, and I’m on a reboot of Punk’d?” Huey’s vision was starting to blur and his thoughts were becoming scrambled. He felt his arguments slipping away from him and mixing with the office experiences surging through his mind. It was mostly reaction gifs at the moment, thousands of them.
“The explanation, Huey, is that maybe…you are wrong, and I am right. Maybe OOPs is working great. Maybe productivity and collaboration, creativity and cross-pollination, innovation and corporate synergy are at all-time highs. Maybe the distress you feel is just a result of your own personal aversion to disruption, to challenging the status quo, to creating value and having impact in new and exciting ways. Maybe you’re behind the times and refuse to acknowledge the unique and exciting future of the Company that can only be realized if we are willing to push the boundaries of what the workplace looks like.”
“And you mentioned those “studies”. What of them? Do you know anything about the crisis of peer-reviewed scientific literature, how most studies turn out to be impossible to replicate? Do you realize you can get almost any result you want from a dataset if you simply torture it enough? And in any case, I can tell you they never studied our work environment. Perhaps other organizations are bungling matters, but we have OOPs, and our implementation is flawless.”
With a supreme mental effort, Huey briefly forced his thoughts into coherence. “Right, then what’s with all the turnover, huh? If everything’s going so well, then why are we playing this little OSHA-incompliant game? Are you just lonely? I can’t imagine why, what with this endearing charm of yours.”
A gleam of manic energy shone in Marge’s eyes as she turned the dial to 50, and her lips curved in a toothy smile. “Some people get lost in the dark Huey. They’re only in the office for so much of their lives. All the messy experiences of the outside world, of their private lives, have a way of confusing them, of leading them down the wrong path. What does the Company tell us Huey? “Privacy is Depravity.” Therefore we must cut out the private, like the tumor it is, and inject the corporate in its place. See, it would be easy for me to abandon you and other poor souls to your ignorance, to the darkness. That’s what we’ve done thus far, label you as “bad cultural fits” and move on. But I know you’re capable of living in the light Huey. You and everyone else, now that we’ve got this wonderful machine up and running. Whether you walk in the light or are dragged into it is up to you.”
“Now answer me Huey, is it possible that OOPs is for the best?”
As soon as Huey could form a thought, the hurricane of distraction raging in his skull would decimate it. “No!”
With a growing smile and widening eyes Marge cranked the dial up to 70. “Are you sure Huey? Are you sure there’s not even a chance that you’re wrong? Not the remotest of possibilities?”
Like an ocean falling from the sky, pounding the earth into submission, the deafening torrent of hundreds of thousands of office life snippets washed his thoughts away entirely as his body convulsed in the chair. Largely unconcious, with every ounce of his remaining willpower, Huey managed a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.
The dial was turned to 95. The sprawling mountain range of Huey’s mind, with all its sharp, unique features, exquisitely carved through the decades of his life, was obliterated by aeons worth of Open Office experience, an endless global cataclysm that raged in the blink of an eye, eroding it down to little more than soggy, featureless lumps in a desolate landscape.
Part 3 – Work is Life
“Would you be so kind as to recite the Company’s slogans for me once more?”
“Busyness is Progress. Privacy is Depravity. Work is Life.”
“Excellent Huey. We’ve made tremendous progress in these last few hours. I have to admit I was a little concerned for you after taking such aggressive measures with the machine, but it looks like you’re still functioning on a perfectly acceptable level. How about as a reward for your hard work I tell you a little secret?”
“Sure, that sounds nice Marge.”
“Between you and me Huey, there’s an overhaul to OOPs I’ve been working on for several weeks now. The machine is part of that update, the part intended to reduce turnover. But there’s a second part I’m even more excited about. You see Huey, originally every full-time employee here at the Company had their own office. Everyone came to work and did their job efficiently, with dignity and pride. Years ago they switched to a cubicle-based floor plan, and then of course more recently I introduced the Open Office.”
“But I realized that the Open Office as we now know it isn’t the end of this journey. There’s another step in the evolution towards workplace perfection that no one’s had the courage to take yet. You see, in the not-so-distant future, we will be moving from the bullpen…to the playpen! Yes, a literal playpen that you might use for children or small animals. Or we might use a sandbox, or possibly a kiddy pool. I’m still working out the details. But just think of the employee density we’ll have when we get rid of desks! And no more of those bulky desktops, laptops, or even tablets or smartphones. No, we’ve got brand new, state-of-the-art eye lens computers on the way as we speak. Picture this: everyone sitting or standing in a space one tenth the area of the bullpen, all existing in a constant, simultaneous state of work and distraction as minimally viable cogs without a shred of privacy or thought to their personal lives, sleeping only when they pass out on the office floor from exhaustion.”
“Granted, this will further aggravate turnover, so we’ll be making extensive use of that machine of ours. I really should give it a name. And employee lifepans will likely take a turn for the worst too, but I’ve already got a few possible workarounds up my sleeve. For example, some of my Silicon Valley friends say that zombification technology is progressing in leaps and bounds. Imagine being able to dispense not only with sleep, but salaries and benefits as well!”
With a vague smile, Huey nodded his bald head in appreciation. “I think that’s great Marge. I’m really excited to see how these new developments play out, and it’ll be a privelege to work in such an innovative environment.”
“Oh I have to show you this picture of Tinkles, so we went shopping this weekend for little cat boots for him since the floor of our house gets so darn cold, but then at the store we saw these absolutely adorable cat dungarees and…”
“Bro! Like seriously, like, bro. Mind blown. Straight up, I was just like “Are you serious right now?” Like how many people are gonna get wrecked this episode? And then with that last dude you’re all like “Okay, this guy’s a beast,” and then when he just gets decapitated out of nowhere I was just like…”
Susan, Ricky, and a few other coworkers were chatting as the office maintenance crew finished up cleaning. Huey glanced at his phone. It was 9:36pm. 5 missed calls, 2 voicemails, and 11 unread texts. A thought flickered in the back of his mind, something about his daughter having a recital. It passed quickly though as he gazed appreciatively at the new poster on the bullpen wall.
He’d made it himself. New hires could have trouble adjusting to the Open Office and sometimes blamed management or the work environment for their lack of productivity, so Huey had made this poster as a friendly reminder of where the blame actually lay.
In the past, Huey would have been home for an hour or two at this point. His family would have eaten already, so he’d pull out lukewarm leftovers and watch TV or help his kid with her homework. And before turning in for the night, he’d devote his remaining mental energy to thinking about quitting his job, changing careers, or even starting a business. It’d always been difficult to think straight after a full day of distracted, semi-conscious existence, though he’d carried on the best he could. But now he didn’t think about any of that. At the moment he just had a running string of words floating through his mind like big golden clouds across an empty blue sky: collaboration, creativity, cross-pollination, innovation…
Occasionally he’d remember his work and bang out another line of code or two in his eye lens computer. It was a slow process, coding without a physical keyboard, but that just made adhering to Doublework all the easier.
He paused again to appreciate his surroundings. He loved that constant familiar chatter. His work family seemed more real to him now than his other family ever had. A job that came with a family, now that was something special. Even on a day like this that in the past would have enraged him (they had been informed that no one below senior management would be receiving bonuses due to poor performance), he felt nothing but bliss. What else really mattered when he got paid (his base salary at least) to be with friends and family all day long?
Eventually the remaining coworkers cleared out. It was late enough that Huey decided he might as well spend another night at the office. He bade Susan and Ricky good night on their way out the door, then crawled under his desk. Perhaps for the last time, since the playpen layout was due to be implemented any day now.
As he laid his head on his binder and closed his eyes, Huey broke into a smile as he realized something:
He loved the Open Office.