I just toured a startup the other day and what struck me while making the rounds was the fundamental sameness of the startup vibe: a handsome group of slack-jawed folks drowning out their ADD with 80-decibels of music.
Startup offices are supposed to have the buzz a newsroom once had, but often are sort of hushed, like a law firm. The floor plan can be open but only because everyone now has a thousand MP3s to pipe through their headphones. The environment is transparent — we can see what one another is doing — without necessarily being collaborative. It’s a little bit like the panopticon a philosopher once imagined would replace our prisons.
And it’s weird, and maybe perfect too. If a 1980s office-worker emerged from a time machine and walked around a typical office, he might be surprised at many things: gym-hardened 25-year-olds riding elevators to the second floor, the presence of computers on everyone’s desk, casual dress, Costco muffins but no ashtrays, the occasional ping pong table.
But what would surprise him most might be the popularity of DJ-sized headphones, worn by everyone from the lowest-level employee to the CEO. The time-traveler might feel about headphones the way we would if we learned that future office-workers will all wear goggles, so that they never see anything except what is on their computer screens.
Don’t we come to an office so we can work together?
I do, but then I don headphones to isolate myself. We have all seen offices with thousands of people like me — the size of a new country, with its own silent language and customs.
I catch myself deferring face-to-face discussion in favor of online chats and email — the growth of IM and the sales figures for headphones probably line up very nicely – just so I can finish listening to a song. I do this even though I can’t concentrate while listening to music unless I listen to the same songs over and over again. I do this even when, as is usually the case, I am wearing headphones without listening to music at all, just to block out background noise.
This tactic may be the latest twist on Virginia Woolf’s insistence on having a room of one’s own. At work I often think of her advice to keep windows open and doors closed: a way to see and feel the world while still preserving your own creative space. Now the office sights and sounds come to us via IM windows and email messages, popping up in a manageable corner of our computer screens rather than standing in our office doorways, demanding our full attention.
Sometimes, it’s good to avoid a face-to-face conversation. When I get back to my desk from a face-to-face conversation, I have to take a few moments to re-orient myself to the three-ring circus running on my computer, and I have to queue up my music all over again. The person I interrupted has the same challenge.
But usually, a conversation is essential. Whenever I disagree with someone, I try to do so in person because we end up reaching a fruitful compromise much more quickly. And whenever I need to collaborate on an idea, I get more energy from being in the same room with someone. I work at Redfin because I love the people here, and noticed I’m happier when I actually get to talk to them.
So whenever I think that maybe I should go chat with someone — I slowly take off my headphones — but never decide to email them instead. And whenever I’ve tried — a dozen times at least — to give up my headphones entirely, I lose control of my perimeter, and get less done. Modern life will give us more and more ways to enter that isolated yet connected state, with open windows and closed doors. Our only challenge is not to spend too much time there.