The Wrong Side of Happy

My employer recently moved to a new office building, and from the moment I stepped into my new workspace I felt ill at ease. This will take time, I told myself. You’ll get used to it, I said..

No one likes change, it’s true, especially when it’s imposed on us, and even more so, when it disrupts our daily routines..

This particular change affected every aspect of my work day: My commute was longer and busier  because I now travelled in rush-hour traffic. My workstation was without the privacy of cubicle walls, requiring me to work next to a hallway (so close that I could reach out and touch anyone walking past, if I chose to interact with them) and next to a glassed-walled meeting room that can seat eight people. That’s way too much interaction for an introverted writer working in IT.

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 a 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 an angry rash appeared on my back. I had myself a case of painful singles. Next stop: short-term disability.

: | : | :

Before the move, during a town hall meeting for our IT department, 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 just about disruption of routine and becoming familiar with the unfamiliar, but that there was something else going on. And it turned out that science had a clue.

^: | : | :^

I stumbled on some information that helped me understand my reaction to my new workplace while I was on sick leave. 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