I was a little late to the open-plan office. Some of my friends have been working without walls or doors for years. A few have even come full circle and are in offices again, but the kind in those vast freelancer complexes where everyone works in clear-walled rooms that stack in endless rows, like The Matrix or maybe The Hollywood Squares. Everything is visible, but no one knows what’s going on exactly. Work as performance art.
Anyway, this past fall TIME and I moved to a snazzy new snack-filled, nonoffice office setting. Coincidentally, my daughter moved into an open-plan bedroom/bathroom, otherwise known as a college dorm. It has been an adjustment. This is very different from sharing a little Brooklyn apartment with her sister. Now she has to spend many hours getting things done in a common space with people at whom she cannot throw shoes or hairbrushes. Just like in an office.
When she came home for winter break, we compared notes on the art of coexistence. The first rule: unless something is on fire, don’t comment on anything, even if it is happening inches from you. Pull down an invisible scrim between you and the 40 screens lining the walls or the seven people sitting on your roommate’s bed when you get back from the coed showers. Think of it like the fourth wall between an audience and the actors on stage. It’s a partition only to be broken at judicious, well-timed moments. Otherwise pretend no one can see you and you can’t see them. But do not pretend that no one can hear you or your Mick Jagger ringtone. Assume that even the people wearing headphones can hear every word you say and every bite you take out of that disturbingly crisp apple. In short, the best protocol is to see no evil, talk quietly and hear as little as possible.
This takes getting used to. For example, one of my daughter’s bunkmates sleeps naked. (Turns out, unclothed roommates aren’t just a joke in those college advice books.) It was distracting at first, but that fourth wall made it O.K. Just keep reading right through the disrobing ritual and the roommate in turn would ignore any furtive weeping. This was all going fine till late in the semester when the roommate said: “You might have noticed I sleep without clothes. Hope that’s O.K.” And boom, the fourth wall was gone, like Adam and Eve–the nakedness situation was suddenly awkward.
Same rule goes for shared work desks. Say you send an email with something funny in it to someone a few feet away. Even if you can hear their email alert and you are fairly sure they are opening the email and you can see them smiling and are certain they are reading what you sent, do not look in their eyes knowingly. And absolutely don’t say, “Hey, wasn’t that funny?” You’ll smash the fragile illusion of privacy and anonymity. Wait for them to reach out. Or send a chat message. (Yes, even if they are close enough to touch.) Otherwise, your co-desk-habitator will feel exposed, like you know almost everything he’s doing. Which you do, but it’s not polite to make it obvious.
Another overlap between dorm life and open-plan work life is the persistent feeling that something interesting is happening nearby but you are not in the loop. There’s an unscheduled huddle in a corner. Or maybe just a collective quickening of fingers on keyboards when texting ramps up. Or you catch an enticing word or two, like beer or jerk. And of course there’s all that low whispering which is simple open-plan courtesy but is unsettling nonetheless. The whole thing could give you a case of debilitating FOMO unless you learn to practice disassociative office mindfulness: the art of being present without being totally aware.
There is also a periodic desire to turn to an imaginary reality-show camera and narrate the day, highlighting the absurdities of whatever is happening inches from you. But instead you Gchat someone and laugh, out loud, which just adds to the aforementioned FOMO.
Eventually we all learn to find the balance between paralyzing self-consciousness and disruptive familiarity. And someday, when my daughter and I inevitably move into adjoining stackable cubes in the vast multi-industry co-working space of the future, she for her first job and I for my last, I’m sure we’ll have to get used to being in each other’s orbit just like everyone else. As I’ve recently learned, being together takes practice, even if you once shared a bathroom for 18 years straight. A college vacation comes up, a beloved but utterly changed adult person shows up in your co-living space, and you have to figure out all over again when it’s O.K. to break that fourth wall and ask who’s calling so early on Christmas morning, and when to pretend you didn’t hear a thing.