Once More unto the Cubicle, Dear Friends: A Pseudo-Shakespearian Response to the Dying American Office

First of all, in order to understand the reference I’m making, you’ll need to have read a famous speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which I’ll link here via Poetry Foundation. Now that we’ve crossed that item off our collective to-do lists, and potentially had flashbacks to high school English exams *shudder*, we can get right to the point — which, as any “good” businessperson will tell you, is “good.”

Long before the age of COVID-19, but long after the age of King Henry V, and later, Ferris’ setting of the dot-com bust, the American workplace began a-changin’. A catalyst? The “open office.” Contrary to its name, this structured work environment has in fact led to very expensive closures. Closures of minds, of jobs, of work in general. Here’s why: it’s a carefully orchestrated mirage, an unhealthy illusion of progress that takes time, energy, and resources away from making meaningful change where it actually matters, which is to say, in the workplace itself.

If you’ve worked in an “open office” for any length of time, you already know. Capital K, know. You know that removing walls doesn’t encourage collaboration. It takes people to do that. You know that removing cubicles doesn’t suddenly un-silo entire business lines. It takes people to do that. You know that creating shared work/play spaces doesn’t lead to greater inclusion, better job performance, or even bolstered company morale, because yep, you guessed it, it takes people to do that. And more often than not, if the places you work for struggle with these issues, it’s people who are the problem, not walls or rooms or any other architectural or design element. Hiding behind expensive space or hierarchy retrofits is like sooooo two decades ago. Now it’s twenty-freaking-twenty and “the office,” however closed or open, has never been a more fluid concept. It’s high time we spoke clearly about what we’ve seen clearly for a long, long time.

BUT WHOA THERE, WAIT A MINUTE!

I see your passion, it’s just that we’ve got to get ready before we rally the troops! And a significant part of those preparations is being able to honestly evaluate ourselves FULLY, FIRST. Why? Because as any real leader will tell you, NO ONE WHO REFUSES TO DO THEMSELVES WHAT THEY ASK OTHERS TO DO AS WELL IS WORTHY OF LEADING, EVER, ANYWHERE. If someone around you in a “leadership position” isn’t a leader, then welcome to the American workplace. And also, you can still show them how it’s done, but that brings me back to my earlier point. We’ve got work to do first.

STILL WITH ME? Good. But hold on real tight because this partnership’s gonna get much worse MORE VULNERABLE before it gets any better CLOSER TO COMFORTABLE. And we’re gonna start by answering some questions. Both of us, believe me.

With the lens of your own experience and after reading Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End:

  1. How would you describe your pre-COVID role in the American workplace? I don’t mean your job title or accomplishments. When I say “role,” I mean your over-arching contribution to the culture of work in America. Great if you come up with a few positive “marks,” but you’re doing it wrong if you can’t also come up with at least one devastating moment of oppression. That’s step one. Step two is to make both things right. Relative to the successes you claimed, turn around and directly thank the person or people who helped you achieve them. Meaningfully. And relative to your lapses in judgment, carry out an appropriate atonement, recognizing that the person/people/places you’ve hurt owe you exactly nothing, and may actually prefer that you make amends by doing work on yourself to avoid becoming or remaining a repeat oppressor.
  2. How would you describe your during-COVID role in the American workplace? Same parameters as above, but pay attention to where your answer shifted and/or stayed the same in this new time and set of social norms.
  3. What do you desire for your post-COVID role in the American workplace? Understand, of course, that if we weren’t in control of our destinies before this year, we are even less so now, which is why I asked about your desires instead of your expectations.
  4. Spend some additional time unpacking your reaction to that last statement, however you might have reacted to it. No, seriously. Spend some time thinking about the fact that you are most definitely not in complete control. How does that change the nature of what you expect to happen for/to/around you?
  5. Relatedly, what are you prepared to lose, and what are you unwilling to accept losing, in the future of the American workplace? How have your changing (or unchanging) roles affected or inspired those things? Would anything be different if your roles were?
  6. And finally, having now owned more of your personal impact on the past, present, and future of others around you, what would you like to see change in the American workplace moving forward? Dream as big as you can, for as long as you can. That’s YOUR list and that’s great. Here’s the deal though. You’re just one person. There are LOTS of other people out there with lists of mountains they’d like to see moved. Choose one person, choose an area of need that they’ve shared with you, and bless them by fulfilling that need where/when you are able. Don’t presume you know these needs or solutions, and don’t solicit them, either. Just listen. Close your mouth, open your mind and heart, and listen. That’s where the true work starts, no matter what the office of tomorrow looks like.

August 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends of The LibraRYAN,

Welcome back! I hope whatever efforts you undertook to examine your homes and your roles within them were productive. I also hope you’ve come to appreciate why a guided response from me at the end of July might have interrupted or overly influenced that important work. Either way, thank you for showing back up to continue this journey with me.

One of the things I found myself considering in July was what — if anything — of the pre-pandemic, pre-uprising past we might be returning to in the months and years ahead. As our nation and the world begins to grapple more closely with the idea of these “returns,” I imagine that more things will be reinvented than simply reinstated, and that includes the American workplace.

For those of you who’d like one last return to the water cooler as we knew it, I offer our August 2020 Reading Group pick: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which was published in 2007 by Hachette Book Group USA of Little, Brown and Company.

Good luck out there, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

July 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

It’s good to see you here again.

Thank you for honoring our break for the month of June 2020. I hope you were able to use it in ways that support a world that is truly just. And, in the process, I hope you haven’t fallen into the trap of thinking your efforts must be the same as someone/everyone else’s.

On the contrary! Use your gifts and talents in the unique ways they were intended, but in order to do this, you must first learn yourself (get to know yourself on an uncomfortably real level). In support, I’d like to suggest some reads for the month of July 2020. Permit me a brief introduction?

More than a decade ago, I found myself in New Orleans for the summer (TL/DR, see here). Long story short, not unlike my choice to attend school in the Bronx, I went under the impression that I’d be able to do my best, most meaningful work somewhere other than where I was from. And even longer story short, I was proven wrong. So wrong it’s embarrassing.

The overwhelming lesson I took from my time in NOLA was that, actually, the most any of us can hope to do is affect good, decent change closest to where we are from, our homes. That lesson changed my life. I’m still learning how best to apply it, but a substantial amount of my resultant growth comes from accepting with grace that the work is never over. By this I mean that there is no “ok, we’re good now” moment, and as such, there can be no real “best way.” We’re all just doing our best on the way to something better. Or at least, I hope we are.

Maybe you read that and thought, “duh, Ryan.” But folks, how many of you have sought to do the work in YOUR homes, the places YOU’RE closest to, the places where there’s so much at stake that it hurts YOUR heart, the places where maybe YOU don’t even realize how much is at stake until YOU get going? And if you’ve started this work, how many of you have allowed YOURSELF the grace to stumble, fall down, make terrible and horrible mistakes, to acknowledge that you can’t solve this on your own, to be human after all?

Yeah, I know. But guess what? I’m standing here, broken and failing, right alongside you. Here’s what we can do to be better, though. Every time we let fear start to lead us down a path we mightn’t ought take, let’s try to remember something:

It’s so. very. easy. to finger-point at other people getting it wrong in other places. It’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and acknowledge your own culpability in your own home(s), which is why so few people do it (at all, let alone consistently). Admittedly, I’ve fallen into that trap on more than one occasion, so again, join the club.

It’s also shockingly easy to understand this all intellectually but then struggle to understand how to put it into practice (yep, been there), or to know how to put it into practice, but to hide behind the relative security of a brand that “does the work” (quotes absolutely intentional) because you’re too scared to do what you really need to do, personally speaking (done that).

That’s all okay, or at least it’s an okay place to start or restart from. The point is that it’s possible to “know” something or “learn” something, and have no idea how the actual heck to go about doing something else about it. Just don’t let that uncertainty and fear stop you from trying (she says as a recovering fear junkie).

For me, anyway, it’s often the strongest pulls, the truest truths, that feel weightiest (more here). And if you’ve had experience with those kinds of things, you’ll know that that kind of weight generally demands two things in order to be moved: (1) tremendous strength, and (2) recognition (humility!) that this strength does not have to come solely from you.

In fact, the most weighty, painful, heart-breaking, soul-wrenching, ultimately meaningful work is often done TOGETHER and not APART, even though it must be done PERSONALLY by/for everyone involved.

To put it a little more plainly, that people, home, and community are inextricably tied is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence when their inextricable bonds get challenged. We should stop behaving as if they’re just by happenstance connected, or connected only in the “-ologies” of life (stuff we’ve “distilled” through academic work).

I assure you, what we actually do in our actual lives, not as statistics or records or whatever other Ivory Tower nonsense sometimes gets thrown around, is what matters. Leave other people’s examinations of themselves to them. You’ve got enough work to do on yourself, my friend.

On that note, I’d like y’all to start by reading one or both of the following anthologies. Then, instead of looking for my discussion guide at the end of the month, please do everyone a favor and do the work to study your own homes. Find the greatest area(s) of need, find the places that hurt to acknowledge, find the faults as much as the prides and joys. Then think long and hard about how you have PERSONALLY contributed to those things — and how YOU might use whatever superpowers YOU have to address them CONSTRUCTIVELY.

That, my friends, is the work that we all need to be doing. And for the record, it’s the work we’ve needed to do all along. But first, let’s learn to listen:

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World — Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom (2018, Nothing but the Truth Publishing, LLC, ed. Deborah Santana).

and/or

This is the Place: Women Writing about Home (2017, Seal Press/Hachette Book Group, eds. Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters).

Welcome to the Good Fight, y’all.

P.S. Itching for some fiction partner reads? Check out my Reading Words tab for a great place to start. You might recognize a few newly (re)popular titles in there. And if you don’t recognize the books, might I humbly suggest that you read them all the more?

P.P.S. If after reading these books you don’t get a sense for why having a female head of state would be helpful precisely in times like these, let’s talk. Because it’s time, whether or not you’re ready, and I already can’t wait for 2024. *kiss*