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.



12 thoughts on “In praise of meatspace”

  1. In the U.S., depending on your contract and your employer’s state, you can be fired without notice and without reason unless the reason is of a discriminatory one (race, sex, etc).

    1. The Cube Farm does not help with noise. It makes it worse.

    You can hear people clipping their nails and you are thinking: Who is that schmuck grooming themselves IN THEIR CUBICLE?

    You can also hear lots of telephone conferences on their cubicle speakerphone (GET A ROOM!), and people’s “private” conversations with their mother and/or cats.

    2. I hate hot-desking. If I don’t have a table, don’t give me one.

    3. I’m a consultant, and I NEED to be in-person with the people I work with because otherwise, your emails and calls go unanswered, and you can’t pick up on their body language that they’re hiding something rather important that they aren’t sure they should mention, that you need to squeeze out of them with some properly placed questions.

    I hate working from home unless it’s handling the off-site support for people that I can’t see in-person anyway. With that, I don’t see the point of being on-site if I don’t need to (or can’t) talk to them.


  2. Partially agree. Some meatspace is good, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it all the time. I split my time between office and home. In the office is the time I chat to people and add things to my To Do list, when I’m at home is when I get stuff done and get my To Do list a little shorter. And your last point is the worry for all us home workers, although I suspect I could just about compete on price with Indians these days if I needed to.


  3. All the introverts who thought they’d escaped the torture of open plan are now screaming blue bloody murder!
    Praps Yahoo think some of their workers have subcontracted their work to India already as per recent news story and want to check they are really working. After all is the meat really beef or just horsemeat?


  4. @Mochimac Thanks for the insight into the differnt cultural background, I hadn’t realised just how fragile employment is in the US. OTOH there seems to be a much more positive view on being fired. If I were hiring people I would view someone being fired (as opposed to being made redundant which is a different process) as a major black mark!

    I’d always thought the cube farm was an American pragmatic solution to the noise problem. At least in an open plan office you can see the source of the noise. And speakerphones should only be allowed in meeting rooms 😉

    @Doogal Contracting may be the answer here – it’s WFH permies who seem to be particularly exposed. Contractors are a nice half-way house, they don’t have to occupy an office, but they can be onsite with less latency and cost than a plane ticket from Mumbai.

    @Sara no horse please, we’re Verizon^H^H^H^H Yahoos! Yahoo’s cube farms seem a little bit low rise to watch cat vids in the office safely 😉


  5. Interesting post, especially for a contractor who has recently migrated to WFH full time.

    I work mainly on global IT projects where there is little or no chance of getting people together physically, so most of the meeting participants are already ‘dialling in’ from another country.

    When there are workshops where people do come over or important UK-based meetings I hop on the train and can just manage there and back in a day.

    Technology does help here – my virtual (software) Cisco IP phone does not have appreciable lag, nor does audio or downstream screen sharing on our SIP meeting client despite my desperately shonky (3Mbps/50-400Kbps*) broadband.

    Our firm did try outsourcing all the project management but luckily for me it wasn’t a great success.

    Another point is that it’s not always easy to find people >in< the office – with hot desking, a lot of meeting spaces, coffee areas on each floor and two separate coffee shops on the ground floor a lot of people are effectively WFH from inside the office 😉

    *Fibre to the street promised by the end of this year and all fingers and toes crossed…


  6. I agree with Sara. Introverts — responsible for much of the world’s innovation — have been driven nuts by open plan offices. I could just about hack it in my early 20s, but now the constant state of semi-alertness caused by everyone around me constantly phoning, rustling, high-fiving, is utterly infuriating.

    Extrovert leaders, as they normally are, don’t understand this at all, which doesn’t help. The result is a migration of people like myself out of offices and back to the bliss of home, rather than commuting an hour each way to work far less productively in a playground.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I am a fully socialised person who is a hit at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

    Open plan clearly works for some. In an ideal world, you’d have micro-offices for introverts, maybe on a floor separate to the extravert romper room. But then you get into the childish office politics of prestige and oversight.

    I’ve had plenty of great chats in offices, made friends, and learned a lot*. But I still hate the places.

    *I think one can over-estimate learning now, at least in non-stuff based work places. The Internet can teach you more in 5 minutes than the average old fogey croning on.


  7. Monevator – I knew there was a reason I like your blog!

    Marti Olsen Laney “The Introvert Advantage” and Susan Cain “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” are both good reads about introversion. They are both American and I don’t agree with everything they say but interesting. Suspect it is a lot harder to be introverted in the US as compared to the UK! (unless you can make as much money as Bill Gates).

    I am lucky enough to have my own office in one location and only have to share with one other person in another location (and I don’t like that much). Working in an open plan is my ABSOLUTE worse nightmare. Managing a couple of extroverts is bad enough as they drive me to drink sometimes. They do have their advantages though – major conduits of gossip 😉


  8. I am about to finish my ‘career’ (I leave work, 10 years early, at the end of March). I have been lucky enough to be offered flexible home-working by my soon-to-be-ex-employer, at a good day rate, whenever I want it (but not when I don’t) so am feeling a bit blessed.

    As someone who creates an intellectual product, and needs no special technology or face to face contact with the client, this should work well for me (I’ve worked successfully at home before).

    I’m far more productive at home – no distractions, no winter cold viruses to catch, no travel time to factor in, no matching outfit to put together!



  9. @Jane Congratulations on your impending freedom! It’s a lovely time of year to be going for it too, with Spring starting and everything coming into bloom. You get to see what you’ve been missing all these years looking at screens in an office. Fantastic!


  10. @ermine – thanks, I’m counting the days! All those years of careful spending have been worth it. I’ve been amazed by how many people have told me (and quite seriously, not in a jokey way) how hard they are finding it and how the wish they were ‘lucky’ enough to be stopping work like me. I just agree with them that I am indeed ‘lucky’ (it’s not worth trying to explain…)


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