We applaud West Bend Mutual Insurance Co.'s attempts to understand how employees actually work ("The New Workplace," Cover Story, Apr. 29). We think environments such as Steelcase Inc.'s Personal Harbor that both foster interaction and respect privacy are important innovations. We understand the complexity of the trade-offs between technology and hoteling, as experienced by Sun Microsystems Inc. But from our point of view, what is missing is any sense of the social nature of work.
If there is anything we have learned in the past 10 years, it is that:
-- Effective work and learning require a community of people, not just a network of individuals. If you are not part of the community, the chances are that your messages will not draw many responses, no matter how fancy the technology you use or how critical your information.
-- Community takes time to get established, and it also requires time to be maintained. This is why simply reorganizing a workforce into "plug-and-play" project teams does not automatically produce the productivity gain that is anticipated.
-- Community is established and maintained through face-to-face interaction, some of it through chance encounters. It is hard to imagine how any amount of technology short of a total replication of the environment can ever replace those opportunities entirely.
-- All forms of distributed and remote work rely on a kind of community capital, which accumulates through real interaction. Without enough face-to-face interaction, teams frequently break down into preexisting communities or function on their own.
If companies knew what we now know, would they have downsized, reengineered, and reorganized in quite the ways that they have? Understanding and anticipating these dynamics can take us much farther in our attempts to rework sensibly our institutional environments.
Susan Stucky, Associate Director
Helga Wild, Research Scientist
Institute for Research & Learning
Menlo Park, Calif.
As pioneers in the practice of supporting processes through innovation, we offer a note of caution. Our research and experience show there is a problem with open-space designs utilizing so-called cubicles. This approach risks the elimination of acoustical privacy. We know that knowledge work requires a balance of interactivity and privacy, not one to the exclusion of the other.
Your article is unrealistic. I work for a concern that, for space reasons, has an open environment such as the one many companies are experimenting with. It is a most intolerable situation. There is no privacy when telephoning, no quiet area in which to work, no private space. Since the entire area is a commons, there is no respect for cleanliness or order. People leave their things anywhere, damage others' belongings, and make it impossible to maintain a good working environment. These are serious issues companies must consider when such a radical shift in the way business life is made.
Michael O. Eshleman
The Lebanon Light