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November 3, 2010
Why Lack of Privacy Can Hinder Creativity

Who’s the brilliant inferior designer who came up with “Wide Open Spaces” as the ultimate work environ? Some Six Sigma, feng shui flag waver or author of "How to Spy on Overworked Employees"?

Just because Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other uber-cool companies made Big Brother-watching spaces popular, do they honestly think it promotes creativity and productivity?

As a writer, I need quiet to think, since most of what I do takes place in my gray matter before my fingers hit the keyboard. White noise or my favorite background music helps me think. Having a direct "can-and-string line" to co-workers’ lives does not.

How can you not eavesdrop when everyone’s wired into a factory-like room, privy to each other’s social lives, marital arguments, kids’ toilet training, and gastrointestinal woes?

Sure, you can plug in with Bose headphones and never hear a peep, but if you need a break from the tunes and online videos (work-related ones, of course) you’ll fall prey to too-much information overload.

Some companies actually put sales and account people (who, when not in meetings, spend the majority of their day on phones) in the same room with creatives. This is especially annoying when it’s a small room with high ceilings, plus exposed brick and air ducts. In those spaces, you’ll hear Tom’s golf score and Betty’s online dating disaster.

I’m not a huge fan of tiny office cubicles, aka "veal pens," even though they’re roofless with layered cardboard walls, but I’ll opt for ersatz privacy over wide-open plains.

Besides, cube décor can get quite creative. I’ve seen carpets, lace curtains, and colorful lamps perk up the dullest veal pens. I’ve seen hand-sewn fabric draped artistically over workers’ heads like canopies. It’s amazing what people will do when they suffer from office envy.

I understand companies can’t give everyone a closed-door space, much less a corner one, but I’ll wager free-range employees surf the Web for personal reasons just as much as they do when they’re sandwiched between partitions. Why else were "Boss Alert" windows and screen shades invented?

Businesses need to accept that employees’ lives require maintenance during daytime hours. Most conscientious workers make an effort to conduct their personal affairs during lunch, often while eating and still working at their desks. They just don’t want to share every nuance with people they already share more time with than families and friends.

Did the giant playpen motif spring from the fact that workers spend more than 40 hours a week together, so why not have fun? Haven’t companies heard familiarity breeds contempt? The fact that full-time workers spend more time with one other than with loved ones is exactly why businesses should honor privacy.

True, a strategically placed skateboard or basketball hoop can decompress stressed-out employees and enable bonding, but when it’s forced socialization, it often has the reverse effect.  

I’m all for fostering team spirit, even if it means attending the tedious annual off-site event (especially if great food and adult libations can be had later -- just lose the Nuclear Waste Bucket exercise), but don’t kid yourself, camaraderie occurs organically on the open range.

Nor should businesses want it to occur then. If I can’t see my neighbor, but I can hear this person, I’m less likely to chitchat when I should be working. The less I’m distracted by chat, whether I participate or not, the less mistakes I’ll make. Six Sigma boasts 99.9 percent defect-free results, so they likely are not proponents of free-range work spaces.

Instead of viewing office and cubicle walls as barriers to team building, companies should view them as signs of trust and respect. There’s always time for recess, during brainstorming sessions and after hours. Treat employees like adults, and they’ll behave as such. If they don’t, send them packing on those skateboards.

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Mary Alias is a writer who hasn’t won any awards nor worked at any hot NY agencies. Consequently, you probably shouldn’t read what she has to say. She’s just a hard-working creative who doesn’t want to get ahead if it means sticking a stiletto-ed heel (actually, she prefers flats) into a fellow forehead. Mary strives to collaborate, create, write. And get paid for it — because, next to writing, she needs to eat

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