From Beloved Dump to Dysfunctional Palace

Posted by: Michelle Conlin on July 5, 2007

New York Times.jpg

When the New York Times moved into its gleaming new headquarters last month, it was suppossed to mark a moment of much-needed glory for the Grey Lady. Over the decades, the newspaper’s Times Square headquarters had aged into a grubby, though beloved, dump, complete nervy mice sauntering across the floor. The grime and analog were left behind in favor of a 52-story Renzo Piano masterpiece tricked out for the digital age. The glass sides of the building are covered in slotted shades that automatically open and close with the angle of the sun. Inside, smart elevators whisk away passengers faster and more efficiently than the standard lift. The Times’ cavernous newsroom, which resembles a neo-modern Italian airline hangar, is a paean to transparency.

At least that’s how the story was supposed to go. As the Times and so many other companies have learned, the corporate move often entails its own special kind of horror. No matter how cush the environs, moves can turn into punch-list spectacles that bring out the tortured toddler in seasoned executives. Malfunctioning shade-controls have left some Timesians broiling in the sun, unable to read their glared-up screens, while others have been left in the dark by the motion sensitive lights. The smart elevators are actually dumb, only going to pre-programmed floors. Get on the wrong cab, and there’s no way to get off—nor tell which floor you are on. Very Willy Wonka. That’s not to mention the overly aggressive, body-slamming elevator doors. “You could be injured,” directed one internal Times missive. The old office had mice. But the new one has rats. Oh, and maggots.

The newsroom is certainly transparent. As in, I-can-read the-email-on managing editor John Geddes desk transparent. Yelling has ensued. Expletives have flown. Sight lines have been invoked. Renzo has been cursed. And, once again, the Times is the story.

So goes the delicate balance between openess and privacy in the new office ecosystem. Twenty years ago, we were “at work.” Derriers in chairs, we were like pilots manning the controls in our cockpits. Today we’re “on work.” We dabble and and flit from place to place, popping here and running there like chefs in a kitchen. To get the workplace to match the new notion of the office as social network, more and more companies have been undergoing the great office space rethink, rehabbing old environs or junking digs altogether in favor of moving into new ones.

Yes, the Times has a drop-dead cafeteria that, in its Manhattan views and vaulted-ceiling grandeur, puts Conde Nast’s famed chow (or non-chow, as is often the case) line to shame. But aesthetically gorgeous as the Times building is, it is symbolic of how often companies can overdo it on openess and underdo it on the pscyhological need workers have for privacy. Research shows that more than half of workers still prefer privacy when working; and most continue to say that they feel they’d be more productive if they weren’t interrupted all the time.

At the Times, many feel the solution is feeble. Strewn throughout the pristine, museum-like space are frosted-glass “rooms of silence,” which have a chair, a desk, and a phone. But they scream “I’m fighting with my spouse” so badly that they’ve alredy been stigmatized as “the crying rooms.” Some workers complain there aren’t enough private spaces or that that they are too far away. The trick, research done by office design firm Steelcase has shown, is to create those ultra-comfortable hang out spots within 60 feet of the desks of the people you want to hang out there.

Then again, it’s an axiom that when companies move to plush new HQs, the change is often followed by surprisingly poor results. It seems CEOs tend to make the deals for these new places when everything is at the peak and then the slide inevitably follows. It happened at Merck. And Time Warner. Will the Times $600 million temple to 21st-century journalism be next?

Reader Comments

David Tereshchuk

July 5, 2007 5:01 PM

Laugh-out-loud insightful, Ms Conlin. You accurately accurately capture just how corporations (and of course the architects they hire, no matter how famous or talented) know little and understand less about how their staffs do their work.

Keep up the excellent intelligence-sharing!

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