The Move

My employer recently moved to a new office building, and from the moment I stepped into my new workspace I felt ill at ease. Not to worry, I told myself, it will take time to settle in. This discomfort will subside. You’ll get used to it.

No one likes change, it’s true — especially when it’s imposed upon us and requires inconvenient modifications to daily routine — it is disruptive.

It affected every aspect of my work day.

For the first two weeks, I was agitated and angry. My commute was longer and busier  because I now in rush-hour traffic. My work station was without the privacy of cubicle walls and forced me to work next to a hallway (so close that I can reach out and touch anyone walking past, if I chose to interact with them). I was situated beside a glassed-walled meeting room that holds eight people over my left shoulder.

Then it got worse.

For the first 10 days after the move, I complained to anyone who would listen that I disliked the look and feel of my new workspace, likening it to a student dormitory, or hospital. Institutional.

I was surround by stark, white walls, and glass and metal meeting rooms.

Not a piece of artwork anywhere.

My productivity crashed and quickly thereafter I had myself a case of painful singles that positioned itself in an angry rash on my back. Next stop: short-term disability.

Before the move, during a town hall meeting, one executive stressed that our new premises were designed with Millennials in mind. It had open spaces, fewer offices, many collaboration spots some with glass walls, some without walls, but it also had a mix of condensed cubicles and desks that sandwiched individual contributors side by each.

After the move, I remarked that if they were trying to dump the over-40 crowd, this was probably an effective way to do it.

While it is true that 9-5 office workers are creatures of habit, I sensed that my reaction was not only about disruption of routine and becoming familiar with the unfamiliar.

There was something else going on. And it turned out that science had a clue.

While on sick leave, I read a passage in Vanishing New York, by Jeremiah Ross that best described my experience, which was less about change and more about ascetics by quoting a study by neuroscientist Colin Ellard.

He placed human subjects in from the Whole Foods grocery store on the Lower East side, strapped skin-conducting bracelets to their wrists, and asked them to take notes on their emotion states. He reported, ‘When planted in front of Whole Foods, my participants stood awkwardly, casting around for something of interest to latch on to and talk about. They assessed their emotions state as being on the wrong side of ‘happy’ and their state of arousal was close to ‘bottoming out.’ The instruments on their wrists agreed. ‘These people were bored and unhappy. When asked to describe the site, words such as bland, monotonous and passionless rose to the top of the charts.’ Ellard then moved to the group to another site nearby, ‘a small but lovely sea of restaurants and stores with lots of open doors and windows.’ Here, these same people felt ‘lively and engaged.’ Their nervous systems perked up.”

Their nervous systems perked up. The wrong side of happy.

It may take time for me to move from the latter to the former. I may never settle in. In the meantime, while shingles has my back, so does science. The virus, like change, may be temporary, but the effects of a poorly designed office has a longer reach.


Suggested reading: Streets with no game