I love the constant frenzy of activity at 1871's front door. There are more than a thousand people a day regularly passing through it. There are visitors stopping by for a press conference or to attend a class, lecture, or luncheon, and hundreds of generous professional mentors who drop in for scheduled office hours or workshops with the member companies of the incubator. Visitors love the buzz and the contagious enthusiasm of so many entrepreneurs of all ages who are actively engaged in inventing the future. 

But for our full-time members who regard 1871 as their day-to-day place of business, it's increasingly a different story. They're more concerned with taking care of business, and it turns out that that's not as easy to do as you might think in the middle of an entrepreneurial petting zoo. So we've decided to start restricting the scope, duration, size, and volume of the constant tours at 1871 in order to reduce the traffic and distractions. 

You may think this doesn't have much to do with you or with the issues you have in your own business. But, as we've listened to our own "customers," we've begun to discover that there's a bigger issue at work here. And it's applicable to millions of businesses which have moved--over the past 10 years or so, with the encouragement of architects and designers and social scientists--to floor plans and office configurations that are increasingly free-form and wide open. 

What we've discovered in our own conversations with our members is simple. Open is over. The theory that wide-open spaces would do a world of good for improved communication, dramatically increase serendipity, and promote the sharing of just about everything--not to mention having the additional appeal of reducing the costs of constructing tons of private offices--turns out to be just the latest triumph of form over function. What we're finding is that a workplace where you can't get any serious work done isn't a workplace--it's a bad joke. Call me a curmudgeon, but I don't really want to hear every morning--immediately upon their staggered arrivals--a report for the "group" from each of my co-workers about their nightly clubbing, consumption, and conquests, even if I cared. But, as often as not, I don't have a choice. 

Anyone with the slightest powers of observation can see that it's a fool's game to try to have a private conversation or conduct any serious business when you're sitting in a place that sounds like a supermarket on Saturday morning or Chuck E. Cheese at Christmas. Headphones may help, but they're their own source of fiddling and distraction, and they put an end to any pretense that there's going to be more communication between seatmates when the whole world is individually wrapped up in little audio wonderlands. 

The fact is that we're watching more and more pilgrimages where our people pick up their laptops and wander--wasting precious time--in search for a respite from the roar and a place where they can hunker down and get something done. These sad sojourns for solace and silent spaces are actually pretty clear statements that we need to rethink the latest spatial strategies and--at a minimum--start thinking about segmenting and segregating spaces (think "no cellphone" zones). There's something frighteningly productive about a little peace and privacy that we've seemingly lost sight of. 

And we should also put to rest this utter canard that younger team members have some mystical multitasking power that permits them to shut out all the noise and other distractions and yet still lets them benefit from the joys of sharing and constant community. Multitasking is a fiction foisted upon folks who just don't know any better. It's doing a mediocre job at a multitude of things rather than doing a deep and productive (and focused) dive into something that you actually need to get done and done well.  

It may be that part of the multitasking confusion comes from the fact that the newer people have never known any other way of operating, and that they are less insistent on the levels of productivity that we have taken for granted. But if that's the case, it's on us to fix it before things get worse and we start settling too often for getting something done when the goal should be getting it done when it needs to get done--and as well as it can be done--all the time. 

We can't blame all of these concerns on our spaces, but addressing what we can change is a good start. I appreciate that there are probably appropriate common areas where it still makes sense to encourage interaction and random activity--intersections and interchanges where potentially additive and informative encounters are encouraged--and even places (within places) where you can temporarily opt into the congestion, conversation, and community if you wish. 

But no business today can afford to be Times Square everywhere all the time. Open is over.

Published on: Mar 3, 2015