In praise of meatspace

There’s a new trend in the world of work. Meatspace. Presentee-ism. Being there, in the flesh. Bums on seats.

The fragrant Marissa Meyer is into meatspace - she's all for yahoos getting up close and personal
The fragrant Marissa Meyer is into meatspace – she’s all for yahoos getting up close and personal

I haven’t been able to trace the MBA paper that started off this management fad, but I saw the beginnings of it in the last few months at work, where the same thing was being said. Not with quite the same panache as Yahoo’s Meyer, who hit Yahoos straight between the eyes with having following edict  issued from Yahoo HR:


Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. With the introduction of initiatives like FYI, Goals and PB&J[ref]apparently that’s Process, Bureaucracy and Jams, not Peanut Butter and Jelly[/ref], we want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum. From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices. [Don’tcha love the poetic alliteration, Yahoos?]

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. [The slack way of life all you lot have gotten used to is about to end, numbskullz] That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. [Repetition to Re-educate any Recalcitrant Refuseniks that Resistance! Is! Futile!]

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.

In other words, Yahoos, your cushy lifestyle and childcare arrangement Have! Just! Ended! Because we own your time and We Can. Pretty much the same was said at The Firm. The keening noise from homeworkers far and wide was pretty similar. I admit that I simply suspected it was to encourage some people to take up the voluntary redundancy scheme the next time it came around. Yahoo may feel itself similarly overstaffed. However, in the US it seems much easier simply to issue pink slips all round, so I conclude that I was being over cynical as this explanation doesn’t apply in the case of Yahoo.

On a side note, imagine the feeling of Power you get issuing an edict like that? All of a sudden, you can turn over the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of your fellow human beings and make them follow your whim. Sometimes you have to look sideways in the mirror, and acknowledge the heart of darkness with its swishy arrowed tail 😉 Gordon Gekko was a wimp compared to Meyer.

Is she right – is homeworking detrimental to the working environment?

It depends on the work. There are some things that are fiercely individually creative and individualistic – writing a book, creating great art, that sort of thing. These things tend to be done by people acting as individual agents, not cube farm workers.So we can probably discount that sort of thing. It’s also not cut out for anything involving Stuff, usually. It’s about knowledge work – ideas, not things. And to be honest, the ‘knowledge worker’ office environment also used to be better in many ways than the typical open plan office/ hot-desking sty.

I saw a gradual degradation of the office environment over my three decades of working, but it is hard to separate the variables. Some of my early work was done where we had a group office of about ten of us, and a group lab where we could work on the development of electronics. This was a great working environment, which I saw both at BBC designs and at The Firm, but it was of its time – an expensive work environment where companies focused design talent and supported them for both the reflective design work (in the office) and the hands on lab work, which was a different sort of thing. There was also secretarial support – other people set the printers, made sure office supplies were replenished, all that sort of thing.

There was clear interplay between the staff- I learned an awful lot from more experienced hands, both by observation and by asking. Homeworking would have sucked here – the resources of my own electronics lab at home are a pale reflection of what was available thirty years ago at industrial research facilities despite three decades of technical development.

Even if I could replicate that, I would be at a disadvantage without the meatspace interaction with other people of a similar level or greater experience – Internet based discussion and email doesn’t go anywhere near compensating for that. Even thirty years of experience doesn’t entirely make up for that – if I haven’t experienced a particular design rathole I’d fall into it without the benefit of others around, the experience just helps me realise this faster.

Many people don’t interact with Stuff at work, they interact with thoughts or ideas. If they do interact with Stuff, homeworking is usually out. Not many people build aircraft commercially at home. So we are talking about knowledge workers.

Knowledge work and better communications – a match made in heaven

I recall the first time I came across the power of computer communications. I was working on an international collaborative project, and every so often I’d have to fax over a document to about ten groups of people in different companies. A fax machine has all the evils of a computer printer together with some pathologies all of its own, this was an early 1990s world without Internet email. Not only is a fax machine a ropey reproduction, it does a bad job of reproducing technical diagrams due to a nasty habit of not bothering to display fine lines. I spent about £500 of The Firm’s money (about £900 now) on a full-length fax card for my Dell 386 computer. All of a sudden people could read the diagrams right, and I could send the 10 lengthy faxes over lunchtime rather than take all afternoon at the fax machine feeding a multipage document in 10 times. And so it went on, with email, scanners and better computers, till we could share the results of our work with other people, from almost wherever we were.

Somewhere we jumped the tracks, and imagined that if we could share the results we could share our ideas. Yes, if it is just us who have the ideas. Yes if the ideas have been crystallised into a presentation. But compared to a bunch of interested and motivated people in a room together actually creating and swapping ideas – no. Even Cisco Telepresence which is HDTV videoconferencing is but a pale shadow of being there – the small time lags, the whole booking in advance thing, it’s crap compared to meatspace, though it’s great compared to an audio conference, or nothing. A lot better than nothing, but crap all the same compared with the best.

I also suspect sound and vision are not the only signals used between people. I was a techy sidekick in a high level business meeting between a CEO who was putting one over an opponent in a weaker position, and smelled the sharp metallic smell of anger/fear in the adversary. The CEO picked that up a couple of seconds later and went for the kill – he was just a little bit further way and must have subliminally reacted to the cue as the aircon wafted the smell to him.

The open – plan office was a step down in the working environment IMO

In the late 1990s companies were all for saving money and the open-plan office was a way to save an awful lot of money associated with physically moving infrastructure and reorganising work groups. For me it was an unmitigated disaster because of the noise problem, and this was aggravated by the advent of the mobile phone. Voice quality on mobiles is poorer than on landlines so people tend to HOLLER AT THE TOP OF THEIR VOICES in an attempt to make up for the impaired signal quality. Most natural audio path impairments are helped by shouting but the problem with mobile phones is the inherent infidelity of the GSM codecs, which is particularly bad when the wanted signal is polluted by background noise. Like in an open-plan office, a train, a public space, indeed anywhere you find shouty mobile phone users. The transmission path can just about get speech through, add junk to that and there’s less left over for the wanted signal.

I’ve been in small (ten man) offices where one of the occupants was involved in long landline phone altercations with their divorcing spouse, and while that was distracting, it was infrequent. An open plan office increases the statistical chance of serious disturbance far more, because there are far more people in earshot. I’d go as far as to say the use of mobiles for speech should be banned in open plan offices. Texting and non-voice communication started to alleviate this problem towards the end of my career.

I’m also written code and part-benefited from being in a colocated group, though the interruption and noise problem is an issue for that kind of work. I have seen a different approach to the open-pan office in American IT offices, where high partitions are used, creating cubicles – the classic Dilbert cube farm. I’ve never actually worked in a cube open plan office so I don’t know if it helps with the noise problem.

Unassigned hot-desking in an open-plan office

One of the problems for companies is that while open plan offices make changes easier, it didn’t address the problem of utilisation, so, fortunately just before I retired, there was a move to unassigned desk allocation (hot-desking). There are some things that educate a drone that he’s no longer in tune with the world of work and needs to surrender it to younger folk, and hot-desking was one of these things for me. I did this in Canary Wharf, where you’re roll up with a laptop and log into your desk phone. The desk phone was an IP telephony device, which introduces half a second’s worth of lag into the conversation. Most people nowadays have learned to live with that because of the similar lag in a mobile phone but I always struggled, particularly when another participant in a phone conference was next to me on a mobile and I heard his speech through the air a full second before it came back from the conference bridge, which added its own half-second latency to the inbound mobile call.

However, the main problems with hot desking were the simple things. Like where the hell is the bog on the floor I am today? How do people do coffee in this building? Where are the printers today – both physically, and having recognized them, how do I get connectivity to the suckers? Then if you’re trying to print something commercial in confidence you have to run a test print first. And so on. I found hot desking is a barrel of minor frustrations and time-wasting just-jobs, before you can actually start anything simply because it takes time to acquire situational knowledge in an unfamiliar work environment. Oh and office planners, allocating just four 8-seat meeting rooms for 300 people on a floor just sucks, okay?


I never did much homeworking, but observation of the reasons for people sending in an email WFH (working from home) showed me the most common reasons had to do with their children, though that wasn’t to say that in the case of some child-free colleagues I wouldn’t also reassign WFH to SFH (skiving from home). There was an increasing trend towards the telephone conference and I am all for people going home to do those so they don’t disturb other people who are actually trying to work in the office.

The telephone conference has the advantage of being cheap. It has no other advantages IMO. In a meatspace meeting at least you have to look people in the eye while you are wasting their time, and in a video conference you can observe the sleeping participants, and it’s expensive enough to discourage excessive meetings. Indeed the only thing worse than a telephone conference is a telephone conference with shared powerpoint presentation, because of the waste of the first 15 minutes while everyone tries to connect to livemeeting and agrees that they have a common view of the presentation, which will then be read out to them anyway 😉

Teleconferencing, virtual working, road warrioring, homeworking – form over function

As communications got better interactions got worse, IMO. I spent a few years of my former life in videoconferencing – great big room setups like Cisco Telepresence as well as the sort of crummy video chat applications exemplified by Skype. All of these methods have a problem, they are a pale imitation of really being there. They work very well with a bunch of people who already know each other, are greatly motivated, and really want to be there. Skype is great for lovers and grandparents/children separated by continents despite it’s multisecond lag and inherent skankiness. These people really want to be in touch. But the impairments of the medium get more significant as more people are involved and the motivation is less. Do you really want to be thinking about work when your child is learning ABC or watching a sparrow? I’m been in enough meetings where Tom and Jerry would be a positive enhancement



or this? no contest, IMO
or this? no contest, IMO

In the early days of virtual working people had to be really motivated to overcome the limitations of the technology, so though it was pretty crap it worked well in the world of work, because a) few people were using it and b) those people really wanted to use it. They were also usually smart enough to use the technology to share the results of their work, rather than to work together with people.

Then technology became cheaper, bandwidth became cheaper and more ubiquitous, and companies concluded that if some is good more was better, and so it was rolled out more widely. At the same time it began to blur the personal space and work space part of people’s lives.

What companies didn’t appreciate was that there was the risk of blowback. If they placed a greater claim on people’s time and commitment with an always on Crackberry virtual office, then they would start to find people’s childcare requirements encroaching on work time. Observation should have warmed them up to that – I’ve been in numerous phone conferences that had to have a break in transmission while a vocal child needed to be attended to, until it became possible for the conference chairperson to mute individual participants remotely. But that’s going to be the cost if people schedule phone conferences at 8am or 7:30 pm and demand people show up. They spread the working day, but received less commitment  in those hours. It appears that we have lost the years of industrial analysis that indicate you can’t run people at > 40 hours a week without productivity falling.

Work – it’s not just about the results, It’s about the process, too, and Marissa has a point – homeworking stiffs collaborative processes

I think I’ve got a sneaking respect for Meyer’s angle on this. There’s a lot to be said for meatspace when it comes to working with people. Humans are terrible multitaskers – we time-slice, but don’t have the information architecture that makes this virtually cost-free to a computer. Meatspace supports focus, and thins distractions. Being there shows commitment, and the bandwidth of face to face beats that of remote anything hands down.

A valid counter to that is that real time interaction is usually only a small part of any knowledge job, and homeworkers often play this card in opposition to meatspacers. The problem is that it’s hellaciously difficult to predict when that face to face meatspace interaction needs to take place –  few creative projects have a regimented time flow. One fellow at work who was big on homeworking though he lived only five minutes on foot from the office (he was in his fifties but had a young daughter) did actually master this. If on a phone conference something wasn’t working clearly enough, then nine times out of ten he would put on his coat and start walking to the office, and be there face to face in 10 minutes.

However, most home workers want to work at home because they want to live at a cheaper or better house further from the office, or they have childcare commitments, or both. They need advance warning – if only for the reason that they would need two hours to get to a face to face meeting!.

There is a darker corollary to this. If you are in a job where meatspace really doesn’t offer an edge, then the logical conclusion of virtualisation ends in India, not the Home Counties. Homeworker employees may not want to press the point too hard, and consider how well you can accommodate the meatspacing zeitgeist in the years to come.