Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It seems as though Lucent has seen fit to close down Bell Labs and will be moving the remaining employees to various other locations. The building itself, which holds a great deal of technical history, is to be sold off and all expectations are that it will be demolished.

This makes me sad.

The city in which it is housed says that it doesn’t want to have the property turn into just another subdivision. I can agree with this. In fact, I think it’s sad that the Labs are closing their doors at all. However, the stated reason kind of annoyed me – the city gets millions in taxes from the property and has to deal with very little in the way of upkeep costs for infrastructure because the property is a largely pastoral setting. They don’t want to build and maintain infrastructure in order to get their tax money.

Guess what – that’s their responsibility. They need to deal with it.

One of the main bidders for the property wants to turn the property into more office space while supposedly maintaining the pastoral nature of the setting. They have a reputation for renovating existing factory, etc space into office space, however in this case they want to tear down the building because they don’t think that any tenants would want to buy offices there.

Am I the only one that thinks it sounds weird that they believe nobody would want to have space in a building which gave birth to some of the greatest technological breakthroughs of the last century?

As for Lucent, I don’t understand them. They bought the Labs for the R&D that they do. They then proceed to cut the legs out from under the whole thing (only about 1,000 people work there now compared to something like 5,000 in its previous days of glory) and now they want to carve it up and ship it off to other places that are “more in keeping with the size of corporate headquarters.”

In my personal opinion, they are making a huge mistake. Part of the reason that Bell Labs was so successful was that you had a huge number of extremely intelligent people all in one place working on things that interested them. This let them bounce ideas off of each other without any problem at all. In fact, from what I understand, it used to be extremely common for people to just sort of get pulled into projects as a natural matter of course instead of being assigned to them.

That makes a very fertile environment for innovation. The fact that it was in a pretty, relaxed location just makes it even more conducive to the kind of thought and work that they did. It’s really hard to innovate under pressure and in surroundings that feel hostile.

Take that away, and they’re just going to be sticking smart people in random, unfriendly office space and the innovation will definitely suffer. I see this as a very bad move.

I know what some of you are thinking – but all offices are sort of impersonal. Cubes are the order of the day and our people seem to do just fine.

Cubes are the order of the day, but they shouldn’t be for any place that does innovative work or work that requires actual concentration. Cubes were made for one purpose – to save a few dollars on office space. Believe it or not, even the guy who invented them now thinks they weren’t such a great idea.

They’re fine if all you do is talk on the telephone (sales or call center jobs), but for things that require quiet (say R&D or programming), they’re just a really bad idea.

They’re loud, they’re too open to the outside world (which causes distraction), and they’re generally extremely cramped. They’re also extremely impersonal (even to the point of some companies having policies that you can’t decorate them at all).

I can hear it now – “So what? They’re not supposed to be personal space. They’re supposed to be workspace.”

Wrong. The “workplace is not personal space” idea probably came about with the industrial revolution. Prior to that, craftsmen worked in spaces that they generally had a great deal of control over. This means that they had things laid out just the way they wanted and in ways that made them more productive.

It is extremely difficult to be productive while doing complex tasks if you are in a location which you are not comfortable with. Every moment you spend thinking how unsettling your surroundings are is a moment that you can’t focus on the problem at hand (though some might argue that the surroundings are the problem at hand. I happen to be one of them).

As far as the “cost savings” of cubes goes, ask yourself this – how much would it cost you for actual office space with real walls? How much are you paying for this “open office plan” crap you have now? Now, with those numbers in mind, think of how productive your staff that would benefit from offices is now. Now, think of how much more productive they would be (and how many fewer mistakes they would make) if they did not have to deal with the distractions of the rest of the cube farm.

It’s kind of like R&D (getting back to my original point) – it’s not necessarily cheap, but it more than pays for itself in the long run. Stop living quarter to quarter and make long term plans.

Current mood: contemplative
Current music: Verve Pipe – The Freshmen

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