Rise of the Pod People

Ezra Stoller, Office Workers in London, 1962

Ezra Stoller, Office Workers in London, 1962

Two days ago Inside Higher Ed featured an article soliciting feedback from university employees – particularly staff and administration — who work in open offices. The author, Joshua Kim, wrote, “In my experience there are many types of people that (sic) require an office to be effective, and faculty certainly fall into that category.  We should be fighting for every faculty member, inclusive of adjunct and non tenure-track folks, to have an office of their own.”

Well, my faculty colleagues at I have never had private offices — which is why I never do any serious work on campus. And earlier this semester — as I noted in a tribute to my soon-to-be-lost office window – we moved from group offices to an open-plan office. It’s been (shall we say?) a bit of an adjustment.

Coincidentally, just yesterday The New School’s Sheila Johnson Design Center launched a new exhibition, “Offense and Dissent,” which examines the history of contentious art and design at The New School. I contributed a piece about the “office pod” – and the history and future of open office plans as faculty work spaces. The exhibition features some photos of our new office, along with this text by me (I kind of soft-balled it, since my investigation seemed to raise some hackles within the administration):

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Big news in spatial politics in Spring 2014 included the rooting-out of a ubiquitous sleeper cell that, for half a century, has infiltrated corporations and governments across the globe. That’s right: the cubicle. Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, sparked widespread interest in the mundane environments in which a global force of laborers files reports, types up minutes, and wastes time on Facebook. This multi-person “pod,” a variation on the cube, is also where New School faculty will increasingly find themselves prepping for classes, editing articles or films, and meeting with students.

The School of Media Studies moved this February to new quarters on the 16th floor at 79 5th Avenue—the former home of the Office of Finance and Business, which left behind a labyrinth of waist-high file cabinets, carving the main floor into a cluster of four-person pods, and rows of private offices (some with spectacular views). Ours is, we hear, the faculty workspace of the future. It’s about “activating the most spaces on campus for the most hours in the most flexible ways,” an administrative staff member told me.

In my shared pod, I have more filing cabinets than I know what to do with, along with three generous rows of bookshelves. We’re adjacent to the kitchen, the copy-and-mail room, and a common lounge and group work area. Another pod is adjacent to a meeting room that’s bookable by anyone from across the university. It is indeed invigorating to see the floor “activated” by so much activity. Having been squeezed into deficient space for nearly four decades, it’s certainly heartening to finally have not only basic amenities, but also common areas where Media Studies can cultivate its identity through community.

That “activation” brings energy and density. And noise. Faculty cushion their brains with noise-canceling headphones when they need to concentrate. Students waiting for appointments sometimes stuff their own ears with earbuds so as to avoid accidentally eavesdropping on private conversations. Meetings in the common work areas and conference room create a flurry of activity that makes it rather difficult to concentrate on crafting that perfect concluding sentence or a subtle audio mix.

These most mundane spaces have a profound impact on how we work—especially together. They determine how we engage with others, how we focus our energy, even how we think. While an open office might maximize use of the space across time, it also imposes a spatial model of bureaucratic labor on those who often engage in activity that defies such regimentation. These “workspace solutions” sometimes create new problems.

As higher education reassesses its business model, considers new modes of “delivery,” and assesses the relationships between physical and virtual spaces of learning, we should consider how the labor of teaching and learning – and the social and affective conditions they thrive on – can best be spatialized. As The New School continues to reshuffle its offices and departments, we need to ask:

  • What are the various kinds of activity—writing, reading, mixing, sewing, model-making, advising, daydreaming, etc.—that are integral to our work as faculty?
  • What kinds of spaces best facilitate those activities, in all their variety?
  • What are the ethics and ideologies, the affects and identities, that we want those workspaces to embody?

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Rise of the Pod People by Shannon Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 comments on “Rise of the Pod People

  1. Jenny Swadosh June 27, 2014 4:12 PM

    Great post, Shannon. Your comment, “which is why I never do any serious work on campus” made me think about faculty and teaching assistants who don’t have the luxury of reading, writing, designing, or conversing elsewhere for whatever reasons (primarily economic). What if home is “activated” by crying children, elderly parents with the television volume turned up high, and/or the generalized noise resulting from multiple roommates needed to pay rent? What were the assumptions implicit in expecting faculty and staff to find their own quiet spaces outside of the confines of the university campus? Who gets to enjoy sonic privilege, or who has to improvise with insulating tools?

    • Shannon June 27, 2014 7:23 PM

      Excellent question, Jenny — and one we’ve discussed on many occasions. I’m “lucky” (?) to live alone — but I have to trade location for space; I live in a slightly sketchy neighborhood, where I can afford to have sufficient space for a home office. I know others have to make similar — and often much more extreme — tradeoffs.

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