CUBES, BOXES AND PEOPLE

My work is nomadic. I drive from place to place to be with students in businesses all over the western and central parts of the island of Montreal.

Walking into a workplace for the first time is always an experience.

When I began, it was the foreignness of these environments that struck me. I had more or less spent my whole professional life inside grade schools and adult education centres, which all have a plain-Jane institutional feel. Bureaucratic practices and the traditions of public education culture weigh them down, as does the architecture of the 1950’s and ‘60s—the baby-boom years when most of them were built, here in Quebec.

And so, office environments initially felt alien to me, and it took me a while to figure out their workings and to feel less like an imposter and more at home there.

There’s an organisational logic common to most offices that I’ve gradually figured out.

It starts with First Contact, which is usually a reception area. In French, that’s called accueil, which means welcome . I like that better, it makes me feel less like a package. In English, it could be translated as greeting (it works for me !).

There are places I teach where even that’s out of reach and I must be buzzed in or the receptionist has to get up and come open the locked entrance door. These days, I may be asked to place blue plastic booties over my own boots so as not to trail salt and dirty snow through the building’s shiny, echoey halls.

Sometimes, the reception area is smack in front of the elevators. Sometimes, it’s in a giant, lonely atrium (many companies are big on huge, glassy entrance atriums that almost no one spends any time in).

Last week, at a place where I went to do some evaluations, the reception booth was in a beat-up old cubby-hole next to a giant machine shop and it was the friendly and charming HR person himself who greeted me with a big smile (I found out later that the fancy offices were upstairs and out of sight).

Sometimes, getting into a building means clearing some serious security.

In one of the places where I teach, the security guard is chatty and sharp as a tack. From his spot behind a huge circular command post, he makes eye contact immediately, gets you sorted out with your visitor’s pass or the key to a conference room in record time, and then moves you along.

trap of death
Jail-like security doors like this one make me feel uneasy every time I pass through.

At another site, I’m greeted by curved, revolving security doors with horizontal, claw-like bars that make it impossible to enter AND exit (!!) the building without a security pass—issued by a guard from his glassed-in security booth.

No one would think to call this a greeting area.

Once you’re in, the challenge in many places is to learn to navigate their labyrinthine corridors without a GPS—especially finding the bathrooms (crucial!) and then returning to your original spot without getting lost.

The only real place for outsiders, in business environments, is the conference room. Weirdly, some of the nicest ones I’ve found have been in the simplest, least glamorous companies.

The snazziest conference rooms are where companies present their best face.

When I first started teaching on site, I was dazzled by the comforts of them. They were quiet spaces and the chairs…wow! They were comfy! (most of us have forgotten how spartan traditional classrooms are)

But that wore off pretty soon. After years of teaching in conference rooms, I now see them as artificially lit cubes with oval tables, decent chairs (usually), a ubiquitous white board (with dried out markers close by) and a projector and phone at the center of the table connected to a jumble of I.T. wires strewn across the tabletop and floor that I usually get my chair tangled in.

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Conference rooms are positioned strategically throughout offices and get lots of use. Many are booked days in advance.

The trend these days, especially in I.T. companies, is to create windowed rooms—often quite small— adjacent to hallways, so that everyone can see who’s in each.  Most of the ones I saw included a couch in a corner somewhere.

In general though, a conference room is a glorified box.

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A rather bleak hallway in the bowels of a local company. At the end of this hallway are larger office areas, cut off from everything else.

One of the places where I’m teaching right now, which employs 28 000 people in just one of its divisions, has buildings that have grown along with it and are basically giant mazes. Many of its conference rooms are in its basements. And that’s where I spend 2 days a week.

We’re not talking about dark, dangerous mines, or sweatshops, or sweltering factories, or industrial hives with integrated «living quarters»; nor are we talking about migrant work that takes men and women (but usually men) hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their loved ones for months at a time, for inadequate pay; or any other of the harsh and inhuman workplaces where people labour, suffer and die in the world and here at home, too.

Of course not.

But still, as I move around the city and discover new companies and new workplaces, I can’t help but think about what passes for normal life now.

How many Montrealers work in office spaces? I don’t know, but it’s probably the most common work environment.

 

I started photographing some of the rooms where I teach groups of three or five or even twelve people at a time. What they have in common is that they’re boxlike and that they’re completely impersonal (users are expected to remove any trace of themselves upon leaving them).

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Several of them—the basement rooms— have no window, which makes their sterility even more oppressive.

At another company, an effort was made to bring natural light into the work environment, but the architect went a little crazy with his ruler, and created so many squares in the true blue windows along the inner and outer parts of the building that the effect from the conference room where I teach is a lot like being incarcerated—or like being in a Hitchcock movie.

Inside the conference room, looking out onto a hallway.
Inside the conference room, looking out onto a hallway.
A room with a view of the parking lot
A room with a view of the parking lot

Conference rooms, like the other areas of most business spaces, whether private, partitioned, open-concept, or production and distribution areas, send us many subliminal messages:

  • there’s nothing personal here;
  • don’t put down roots—you’re passing through;
  • you’re meant to feel just comfortable enough to work, not play;
  • efficiency, function and standardization matter;
  • accept the conventions of this place.

There are undoubtedly all kinds of published studies about the effects of modern office environments on the people who work in them . I don’t expect to ever read one; I’m worried that they’ll be written in a language that’s as impersonal as the environments they’re examining.

IMG_2989But I know what I’ve observed and what I experience every time I go to teach. Though I’ve adapted to each site, and know the people and my way around the places well enough, I still always feel slightly uneasy when I first arrrive and when I settle into the conference room assigned to me; even though it’s the 10th or 20th time. And that feeling lingers as I wait for my students to arrive.

 

But when they do….

As soon as they do…

…within minutes, all of my uneasiness dissolves.

There we are: smiling and eager. Happy to be there.

The conference room becomes a strange and incongruous oasis. No one leaves his/her work behind but for some reason, there’s a solidarity between us and everything can be discussed with a different perspective and seen in a different light.

The decor means nothing except that it allows us to gather and communicate and learn from each other.

The conference room has a heartbeat and a glow.

It’s been peopled.

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2 thoughts on “CUBES, BOXES AND PEOPLE

  1. Interesting. I’ve worked outside the home all my life. I’ve spent pretty much my entire career migrating from one such space to another, and never really felt alienated because I’m always attracted to or repelled by human energy rather than architecture. I’ve had big offices with big picture windows, small cubicles with only artificial light, open and closed concept … yada yada yada. And as you came to conclude … from the Gatekeeper (as reception is known), to the President, the Manager, the custodian, the window washer … it’s the people … it’s always the people. And unfortunately, for me anyway, the politics they always create. That’s where and when I feel the cold wind of alienation.

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  2. « That’s where and when I feel the cold wind of alienation. ».
    What a beautiful, terrible phrase.

    And of course it is part of the workplace equation.

    Still, the artificiality of many office spaces is not to be underestimated as a force of alienation, I think.

    Like

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