The Reason the Office Isn’t Fun Anymore - Kanebridge News
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The Reason the Office Isn’t Fun Anymore

RIP eavesdropping. Employees are now hiding out in privacy booths or empty conference rooms, turning workplaces into quiet zones. ‘It’s weird.’

By RAY A. SMITH
Thu, Jan 18, 2024 9:33amGrey Clock 4 min

When David Witting prepared digital-marketing agency Dept@’s Boston-area offices for employees’ return in 2022, he ordered trendy couches, chairs and high tables, envisioning lively collaboration and banter.

Yet when his co-workers arrived, many skipped the furniture and gravitated toward the private booths scattered in the office. Since then he’s jettisoned some of the furniture, and added more booths.

“People are coming in to do occasional big meetings, but really the rest of the time, they want a quiet private spot to get on a Zoom call,” said Witting, a partner at the company. “It’s weird.”

As Covid-19’s remote-work surge fades, some workplaces are quieter and odder than ever. Employees have returned only to park themselves in deserted conference rooms or sound-muffling chambers. Colleagues grumble about booth-hogging co-workers, and some companies have started enforcing time limits on them.

The pods, some resembling old-school telephone booths, have emerged as one of the hottest segments in the $24 billion North American office-furniture industry. Manufacturers such as Room, Nook and Framery say business has been brisk. But some workers and managers say more booths means less eavesdropping, less gossiping, less camaraderie and less fun.

“It’s strange,” said William Blaze, a technology recruiter and consultant, referring to colleagues who end up occupying booths for much of their workdays. Blaze, who lives in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., observed the phenomenon while working at tech companies from 2021 to 2023, as well as at a client’s Manhattan co-working office where he now works two days a week.

“It seems that the goal of returning to office has been to create a rowdy buzz,” said Blaze. “We’re not seeing that.”

Janet Pogue McLaurin, global director of workplace research at architecture and design firm Gensler, said workplace privacy has never been more important. Many of the firm’s clients, which include big companies such as Amazon, have more than doubled their booths and other private or semi-private areas since the pandemic.

“This is a huge trend,” she said.

Demand for privacy has office architects and landlords scrambling to rearrange layouts. Open-plan offices, often dreaded by employees, are now being peppered with pods and booths that scream “do not disturb.”

Jamie Hodari, chief executive of global co-working company Industrious, said some workers are monopolising private areas in office spaces that were designed for professionals to connect with other professionals. “We see a lot more people linger for two hours post-phone call or a Zoom call because they like having a little space to themselves.”

Booth-inclined office workers say their needs have changed post-Covid, and they have a harder time concentrating among noise and distractions.

At CrowdComms, a U.K.-based maker of event technology, managing director Matthew Allen got used to working in near-silence at the office during the pandemic. When colleagues returned, their phone calls—even at normal volume—annoyed him so much he bought a sound-dampening booth.

Though it was ostensibly for the entire office, he soon moved in.

“It’s quite selfish,” said Allen, who has added a trio of plants. “I think it has very much become my home.”

On social-media sites such as X, Reddit and TikTok, employees generally celebrate the booths. Even Chatty Cathys are seeking them out. One X user tweeted that she locks herself in an office phone booth most days because she talks too much.

Others vent about booths’ poor ventilation and small size, or their aesthetics. Kirsten Auclair, a biomedical researcher in San Francisco, shudders at the harsh lighting in the booths she uses to take Zoom calls at work.

“It casts like the worst shadows, you look just kind of, like, on the brink of death,” she said. Still, Auclair considers the oasis from colleagues’ noise an office lifesaver.

Booth manufacturers insist their products can coexist with collegiality. SnapCab founder and CEO Glenn Bostock said the glass walls of his company’s pods allow for a sense of connection with co-workers.

“They can see you,” he said. “You can wave at them. You can still interact with people visually but you get that audio privacy.”

Other products seek a different balance between isolation and community. Furniture maker Steelcase offers a desk-encircling tent meant to ensure “territorial privacy” instead of silence. Nook, headquartered in the U.K., makes hut-shaped hideaways intended to provide sense of psychological safety without being completely enclosed.

Nook founder David O’Coimin said an office filled with phone booths “is like you have a jail instead of having a workplace.”

Furniture distributor Thinkspace sells booths that Sid Meadows, principal and vice president, said are designed to allow a low level of outside sound. Humans are wired to crave some background noise, he said, pointing to popular YouTube videos of ambient office chatter.

That matches the findings of a study co-authored by Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing and Performance. She and colleagues discovered people became stressed when their surroundings were too quiet as well as too loud. The typical volume of birdsong, at 45 decibels, appears to be just right.

Nick Fine, a user-experience researcher in London, describes himself as an “old school, pre pandemic office worker” who enjoys the hubbub of a busy workplace. But the now-hybrid worker still spends considerable time in an enclosed pod to work without overhearing his colleagues’ chatter on days he’s in the office.

“I have ADHD and working in a pod engages my hyper focus,” he said, adding he likes having the booth option when the din is too much.

Farmer’s Fridge, which sells fresh salads out of vending machines, has eight pods made by Zenbooth and a plethora of conference rooms in its Chicago office. It offers about 40 hideaways for the 85 people who work there, yet that bounty of isolation isn’t always enough, even for the CEO.

“I actually live three minutes from here,” said Luke Saunders, also the company’s founder. “If I really have to get work done, I do it at home.”



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”