The bane of office bullpens

Do you work in a bullpen-style open office? You are certainly not alone, both literally and figuratively. Lately it seems everyone is moving towards this kind of seating arrangement, but the lack of privacy doesn’t necessarily balance the potential productivity.

So says a story in the New York Times this past weekend.

It is another example of the cycle of history. My first job out of college, back in the 70’s, was working in such a bullpen for an insurance company. We sat in rows of desks, with several of them sharing a single desk phone. There were no partitions. There were no computers. There were no white noise (now they are called pink noise) systems deployed. Managers sat in offices with windows and doors around the periphery.

I recently began watching the first season of Mad Man and their office layout was similar. If you were a worker-bee back in the day, you didn’t have much privacy. Of course, we had electric typewriters back then and it was a pretty noisy place all around.

We got to these bullpens via the cubicle concept, and there are some places that have large fields of them, so at least you can’t see your fellow workers and there is some semblance of privacy and your own space. Not any longer.

Back in the 70s, we had our own desks. Now we have share large work surfaces in these modern bullpens. At the offices of one trendy company, you are so closely packed that you can reach over and touch someone. There are special “conferencing” spaces that resemble diner booths or living room areas where two or four people can gather for an ad hoc conversation, away from others. These are popular too.

But the open plan and close quarters really has the effect of people bringing in headphones and listening to music to mask the sounds of others. Which is ironic, because the whole idea of the bullpen was to make it easier to collaborate. Now that we are surrounded with our cocoons of computing, you tend to use the same communication tools that you would if you were geographically separated: email and IM. That seems odd. One source in the Times piece was quoted as saying “You talk to more people in an open office, but I think you have fewer meaningful conversations.” Or people remove themselves entirely, and work from home when they need to concentrate on something for extended periods of time. This is progress?

Many companies have experimented with background noise systems. At Autodesk, they had the system running for months in secret. Then one day they turned it off to see what happened. Complaints poured in. (On the Times website, you can play some of the sample sounds of these systems.) These systems seem essential nowadays.

I guess I am lucky: For many years I have had my own office, which I share occasionally with one other person. About the most noise that I get are the trash trucks barreling down the alleyway. The rest of the time you would just hear the clicking of keyboards.

2 thoughts on “The bane of office bullpens

  1. Many, many years ago, my first job was as a junior engineer in a large company. The “office” resembled a gymnasium, with rows and rows of desks, old, heavy metal desks that were probably military surplus. There were no computers, no calculators. There was a phone in the center of every four desks, shared by four engineers.

    At the end of the day, you were expected to clear all paper from the top of your desks. To enforce this rule, the night janitor walked down the desk tops with his push broom, pushing everything off the desktops every night, straight into the waiting trash cans.

    • Well that is one way to clear those desks! A tidy desk is a tidy mind, or something like that.
      Yes, the thought that we would have to share our business phones now is pretty amusing when you think about it. Thanks for sharing.

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