‘Inside Meta’s Push to Solve the Noisy Office’, WSJ, February 16, 2023:
Coming to the campuses of Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. is a contraption that can block sound, shield workers from their peers and allow for heads-down, uninterrupted work.
It’s a cubicle.
That is, a noise-canceling cubicle designed using some of the same principles found in soundproof, echo-free anechoic chambers. “The Cube,” which the company is beginning to roll out to offices worldwide after months of development, absorbs sound from multiple directions, says John Tenanes, vice president of global real estate and facilities at Meta. “It’s like a self-cocoon.”
Bursts of focused work have their place, but in Meta’s attempts to provide its workers silence when they need it, noise when they need it, and peace when they need it, it’s hard not to see a concerted effort to make the outside world, and what it has to offer by way of quiet and benignity and such, not just redundant but undesirable.
I prefer an office that interrupts you so you’re not just sitting all the time, so you walk around and go to other places for quiet; that preserves the characteristic office bustle as the opposite of the isolation and dreariness of working from home; and that, while facilitating an esprit de corps, doesn’t try in bad-faith to substitute our relationships with nature, community, and ourselves with it.
This said, esprit de corps might also be stretching it. According to WSJ:
Piping in white noise or sounds of nature to help mask conversations is an increasingly common technique in the U.S., says [a VP of design at some furniture company]. Companies using such systems often want to reduce human-speech intelligibility, or the ability for employees to overhear specific discussions across an office. “As soon as you can make out the words that your neighbor is saying…then you get distracted,” he says. … Meta is testing a system that plays sounds in the background that range from footsteps on pebbles to waves crashing.
They’re obviously trying to instrumentalise the enlivening benefits of spending time among trees, time digging your feet into fine beach sand as the waves lash over them, time gazing into bottomless valleys and night skies. And it seems… not quite okay. Meta’s designs sound like those of a company trying to fold different spaces, and their different affordances, into every point inside its office, offering its occupants a way to hold meetings, make Zoom calls, code with focus, and anything else – all without having to get up, at a time when getting up and talking a walk seems to be an easy public health intervention.
What if this leads to sensory fatigue, where the next wave over your feet doesn’t still your mind so much as remind you of a spreadsheet? What if these hacks suppress the voices in your head asking you to take a step outside? What if, by depriving you of breaks and promising you the deleterious pleasure of continuous, unwavering productivity, it further pushes the already volatile pleasure of doing nothing out of sight?