Over the years, I have worked in several industries in a few states, and have had a myriad of offices of varying sizes and attractiveness. For more than one job, I have maintained an office at home, as I do now.
The office in my house is angled off a red brick foyer and accessed through a set of French doors. I spend many hours a week in it, writing, running a small business, doing bills, and keeping in contact with friends.
When my husband and I built the house, I had accumulated some experience in previous home offices and knew what to do, as well as what not to do, while we designed the space.
A desk in a corner of a bedroom just won’t do. A separate space is necessary…a location that means “I am going to work now.” Despite it being in your home, the office needs to have a door. There are times when you must close it when making phone calls, or when you need to block distractions from the rest of the household. Most importantly, you need to lock up shop at the end of the workday. It places a boundary on work time versus home time. I also learned a source of sunlight is important—preferably a window, rather than a skylight. A glance outside makes you feel connected to the world.
My desk faces north to a glass door that lets me enjoy the scene of a garden with a covered patio, xeric plants, and a courtyard entry gate. The door is flanked by two windows, and the room also has a smaller window on an east-facing wall. A majestic mountain completely fills the pane of this window.
A graceful fountain-like Texas Red Yucca occupies the full-length glass pane of my office’s door that leads outside. Elegant and striking, this yucca is in its prime. Hummingbirds squabble belligerently over specific yucca blooms. Delicate white butterflies visit the blossoms and seek nectar in peace. Like intimidating fighter jets, yellow jackets look fearsome as they also enjoy the nectar.
I should close the blinds when I work in the office, because I quickly allow myself to be seduced by the scene outside. Then I succumb to reverie as the ghosts of past offices emerge.
Having spent all my working life in an office—whether in my home or at an employer’s site—I have amassed solid data to analyze what kinds of offices work well for me, and what sort of work environments hinder my creative juices.
Over the years, I have come to realize it was often the physical space that mattered. At other times, what mattered was the human activity that occurred within the space.
* * *
My office on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was hardly a sophisticated space. Nor was it located in any kind of stylized Art Deco building. The solid, stone-faced edifice had no etchings or gargoyles protecting it. The windows were rickety, the air conditioning was temperamental, and the view outside from where I was seated at the back of the building was a red brick wall of the adjacent building. It didn’t matter, because it was Fifth Avenue, and the business was a fashion publication! What a spot for a twenty-year old woman to spend the last two summers of her New York college days reading Glamour, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar.
The first summer I worked there, my desk faced the elevator. I was a receptionist and also processed subscription orders for a trade-only publication. I kept my eye out for anyone who exited the elevator. We had the whole floor, and my office consisted of one of two desks, right under an air conditioning vent on the ceiling that mandated I wear a scarf and sweater all day. The place was lively, but the real excitement was in the back room where the weekly newsletters were created.
Producing the company’s publications consisted of clipping fashion items from newspapers all over the United States and using them to create newsletters that would be sent to subscribers in the retail fashion trade and garment industries.
The second summer I worked for this company, I was assigned to the back room and enjoyed looking at all the pencil-drawings of beautiful fashion images and tried not to gasp at the prices of high-end dresses and coats. It was my first real introduction to the publishing world as I helped paste together the mock-ups for the various publications. Lunchtimes were spent at the local Woolworth’s counter or at a cafeteria nearby. When I left work, I rarely went immediately home. How could I? I worked just a few blocks from Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Nearby were also Macy’s flagship store and Gimbel’s. Bloomingdale’s was not too far, either, and there were countless boutiques.
The physical view from my office didn’t exist. But the view outside placed the beautiful, and sometimes ridiculous, sartorial creations of the world at my feet.
Yet that was not as important as something I learned, internalized, and passed on through my life. The owners of the company had last names that were famous for their behind-the-camera work in fashion photography. They also had hearts of gold.
The last summer I worked at this publishing house, I took a day off to attend my college graduation ceremony. About mid-morning, my father called up to my bedroom, informing me someone had sent me a magnificent bouquet of three dozen red roses.
As I floated down the steps and walked toward our enclosed front porch, I wondered if the bouquet was from my boyfriend, who was in Army boot camp at the time.
I ripped open the gift card. The president of the company, whose office was not too far from the big workroom in which I spent my days, signed the card.
“Congratulations,” it said. “May you have much success and happiness in your life.”
I was delighted, but also quite surprised. The following day, when I returned to work, I knocked on Mrs. Mittlemark’s door.
“Thank you so much for those beautiful roses. I was quite surprised.”
“I hope you enjoy them,” she said. “Just do me one favor.”
“Of course…anything,” I happily responded.
“Pass it on. Someday, do the same thing with the roses I did for you.”
My eyes stung from salty tears, but I did not allow them to flow. “I promise you I will, Mrs. Mittlemark.”
By the end of the summer, they offered me a full-time job, but I already had other plans, and in retrospect, I find it ironic I am now a writer and engaged in publishing.
About twenty years after I left the publishing company and was a manager in a large firm, I had the opportunity to hire a summer college intern. She worked for me full-time for two summers and part-time during the school year. She accepted my offer of full-time employment and as her graduation approached, I realized it was the perfect time for me to fulfill my promise to Mrs. Mittlemark. On the morning of my intern’s graduation ceremony, a bouquet of three-dozen red roses was delivered to her house.
When she thanked me the next morning, I just asked her to pass the gesture on to someone else someday.
She choked up, “I will.”
The view from the old Fifth Avenue building opened my eyes to the importance of taking the time to acknowledge people for their accomplishments.
* * *
My first experience working from home was using a spare bedroom in an apartment my husband and I rented in Southern California, while we hunted for a house. It was a dark room, with a single window that offered no view other than an outdoor corridor and concrete block wall. It made it difficult for me to work. I needed to have good natural light, a view of something alive, and a connection to the rest of the world. Since I traveled quite a bit for my job, I didn’t have to spend too much time in the office, but I hated it nonetheless.
When we moved to our California house, the bedroom I used as an office was brighter and connected to a covered patio. At least I had a view of both greenery and sky through the windows.
At that time, in the mid-1980s, online business connections were scarce. Contacting co-workers, clients, and anyone else was accomplished via telephone, and written correspondence was transmitted on paper through the post office.
In other words, I talked to people. Yet, I wasted time contacting and re-contacting people who might not have been near their phones when I called. I used two traditional land-based telephone lines, one with a modem connection. It allowed me to email my employer, clients, and co-workers, but only if their companies had developed, installed, and maintained private internal email networks. I was an external contact, and each company with whom I consulted had to create a user profile for me and grant me permission to utilize its proprietary network from an external site. As a result, I worked with at least eight or nine different email systems, login identifiers, passwords, and dial-up rules. Cell phones were beginning to become popular, but they were large and heavy and easily filled an average-size purse. There were no webinars or video conferencing, no available Internet.
Yes, you read my words correctly…no Internet. It might sound unbelievable to those who grew up in a connected age, but in the 1980s, we really did live and function with written memos and telephone conversations.
From that office at home, it was lonely, despite the fact I could see something green outside. I had just moved to a new state, had no friends yet, and no opportunity to connect with co-workers for lunch or casual conversation. In retrospect, it was probably the wrong time to have an office at home. I could have benefitted from daily face-to-face interaction with fellow employees.
* * *
My office wasn’t always at home. I have been employed by several companies, and my offices in their facilities were quite varied. I used the word “office” loosely. Often, it was a cubicle—a colorful, acoustically-paneled cubicle, but still a cubicle. In those jobs, it seemed the view of the outside world was afforded only to those who had reached a high enough position in a particular department.
Over the years, I’ve had offices with large windows, offices with small windows, offices with wire-reinforced windows (the building was a converted psychiatric hospital), and offices with no windows at all.
The worst one, though physically attractive, was the underground office. It had fake translucent windows, artificial sunlight streaming through the fake translucent windows, and simulated shadows of leaves projected onto the fake translucent windows.
Moreover, the architects of this expensive, fabricated world never bothered to introduce a fake breeze so the simulated leaves would appear to be moving on the translucent “window” panels. I surmise some high-paid psychologist encouraged the company to trick us into thinking we had a view to the outer world.
It didn’t work.
If any of us desired a phony touch of nature, all we had to do was look up from our cubicles at the shadows of bogus leaves cast by the counterfeit sun on the faux window. In that particular space, the higher-ups had it worse. They had no windows at all, and when they closed the doors to their private offices, they may as well have been working in closets, regardless of how nice the furniture was.
The company spent a lot of money making this environment appear real, but it never did go so far as to include manufactured rain, thunder, and lightning, as they do in the produce sections of supermarkets these days. It was California, earthquake country, and I had moved there with my husband for a great job opportunity he embraced. At least the fake translucent windows did bow and rattle when the earth moved, but the leaf shadows remained eerily stationary.
The view from that office was insulting.
* * *
At another job, I was a computer programmer, and I worked in a bank’s operations center, which is the heartbeat of a financial institution. Some think a cash vault is the bank’s most important room. It isn’t. Cash can be replaced. Processing customer transactions is a key function of a bank. That’s all done in an operations center, via computers, with computer programs running and exchanging data with other programs both within the bank and with other financial, regulatory, and government institutions.
For security reasons, operations centers do not look like banks. Often, there are no identifying signs on an operations center. That’s how critical they are.
The operations center where I worked was a brand new building. It was a tan-colored, thick concrete structure, almost soundproof, and staffed with an armed guard at every entrance. All employees had to use electronic means to access the facility. It was called a card key, and the year was 1981. Card keys were high-tech, then. The place had few windows, and those that existed were exceedingly narrow, about nine inches wide.
From the outside, it looked like a prison. Inside, it was spacious, well-lit, and all the employees understood why the building was designed to look nondescript from the outside.
The programmers worked in a very large room devoid of private offices or cubicles. Each of us had a metal desk with cabinets above, a chair, and a phone. There was enough space between our desks so we didn’t feel at all crowded. None of us had a computer terminal to use. Instead, we had to sign up to use one in a common location; personal computers hardly existed in the business world at the time. The office space did not buzz with clicking keyboards or whining printers. We wrote our programs on green paper coding forms, using sharp pencils with good erasers.
Pencils do not make a lot of noise.
Once I wrote all my program code, I brought the green sheets to one of the keypunch operators who then “coded” them onto beige-toned, stiff paper cards. The code looked like tiny elongated rectangular holes, and I had to remove any hanging chads from them, or the computer would interpret the logic incorrectly. Then, I walked from the windowless keypunch room with my deck of numbered cards in hand. Often the deck was many inches thick, and I once forgot to number the cards and dropped them, but that’s another story. I brought the deck directly to the window-free vestibule of the highly secure and, of course, equally windowless computer room. Once there, a scheduler added my program to a list of other programs to be tested, and then “ran” it through the IBM mainframe. The mainframe, which did not care it was in a windowless room, did what I instructed it to do. After the program “ran,” I would receive a printout with the results of my logic.
It was always humbling.
Printing occurred in a vast subterranean room filled with giant, clattering dot-matrix printers. As a result, the office space where I worked was peaceful and quiet. Office environments have changed over the years, and my appreciation increases for the humane, thought-encouraging environment I enjoyed at the operations center, despite its similarity to a penal institution.
Did the openness of the space I worked in and the tranquil environment allow managers to utilize their staff appropriately? Maybe.
We had to think, and think well before ever writing a line of code. I was allowed to think before doing. I was expected to think before doing. Thinking was considered “doing.”
I didn’t know I was in Utopia.
Since our desks were all in a shared space, I found there was a lot of incidental learning occurring. I once overheard my highly experienced co-worker, Dan, talking to another co-worker about how he solved a particularly knotty logical problem in a series of complex, related programs called a “system.” There was a time I mentioned some code I wrote, and everyone was eager to learn how to use it, so I gave a class to teach them how to write and use the code.
* * *
From my current home office, a room I expect will be my final place of business, I have a colorful vista of the world outside. Sometimes lively, sometimes tranquil, it is a view I enjoy in an environment based on a foundation of multiple email accounts, telephone conferencing, video-conferencing, social media, and high-speed internet, offering me the world at my fingertips.
I am rarely lonely.
My computer is networked to two quiet printers, and I can work wirelessly from any room in the house or even at my neighbor’s house.
The wasps and butterflies and hummingbirds continue to use the Texas Red Yucca as their workplace. I sometimes join them by working al fresco on the covered patio, sharing their outdoor office.