The Reason the Office Isn’t Fun Anymore
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The Reason the Office Isn’t Fun Anymore

RIP eavesdropping. Employees are now hiding out in privacy booths or empty conference rooms, turning workplaces into quiet zones. ‘It’s weird.’

By RAY A. SMITH
Thu, Jan 18, 2024 9:02amGrey Clock 4 min

When David Witting prepared digital-marketing agency Dept@’s Boston-area offices for employees’ return in 2022, he ordered trendy couches, chairs and high tables, envisioning lively collaboration and banter.

Yet when his co-workers arrived, many skipped the furniture and gravitated toward the private booths scattered in the office. Since then he’s jettisoned some of the furniture, and added more booths.

“People are coming in to do occasional big meetings, but really the rest of the time, they want a quiet private spot to get on a Zoom call,” said Witting, a partner at the company. “It’s weird.”

As Covid-19’s remote-work surge fades, some workplaces are quieter and odder than ever. Employees have returned only to park themselves in deserted conference rooms or sound-muffling chambers. Colleagues grumble about booth-hogging co-workers, and some companies have started enforcing time limits on them.

The pods, some resembling old-school telephone booths, have emerged as one of the hottest segments in the $24 billion North American office-furniture industry. Manufacturers such as Room, Nook and Framery say business has been brisk. But some workers and managers say more booths means less eavesdropping, less gossiping, less camaraderie and less fun.

“It’s strange,” said William Blaze, a technology recruiter and consultant, referring to colleagues who end up occupying booths for much of their workdays. Blaze, who lives in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., observed the phenomenon while working at tech companies from 2021 to 2023, as well as at a client’s Manhattan co-working office where he now works two days a week.

“It seems that the goal of returning to office has been to create a rowdy buzz,” said Blaze. “We’re not seeing that.”

Janet Pogue McLaurin, global director of workplace research at architecture and design firm Gensler, said workplace privacy has never been more important. Many of the firm’s clients, which include big companies such as Amazon, have more than doubled their booths and other private or semiprivate areas since the pandemic.

“This is a huge trend,” she said.

Demand for privacy has office architects and landlords scrambling to rearrange layouts. Open-plan offices, often dreaded by employees, are now being peppered with pods and booths that scream “do not disturb.”

Jamie Hodari, chief executive of global co-working company Industrious, said some workers are monopolising private areas in office spaces that were designed for professionals to connect with other professionals. “We see a lot more people linger for two hours post-phone call or a Zoom call because they like having a little space to themselves.”

Booth-inclined office workers say their needs have changed post-Covid, and they have a harder time concentrating among noise and distractions.

At CrowdComms, a U.K.-based maker of event technology, managing director Matthew Allen got used to working in near-silence at the office during the pandemic. When colleagues returned, their phone calls—even at normal volume—annoyed him so much he bought a sound-dampening booth.

Though it was ostensibly for the entire office, he soon moved in.

“It’s quite selfish,” said Allen, who has added a trio of plants. “I think it has very much become my home.”

On social-media sites such as X, Reddit and TikTok, employees generally celebrate the booths. Even Chatty Cathys are seeking them out. One X user tweeted that she locks herself in an office phone booth most days because she talks too much.

Others vent about booths’ poor ventilation and small size, or their aesthetics. Kirsten Auclair, a biomedical researcher in San Francisco, shudders at the harsh lighting in the booths she uses to take Zoom calls at work.

“It casts like the worst shadows, you look just kind of, like, on the brink of death,” she said. Still, Auclair considers the oasis from colleagues’ noise an office lifesaver.

Booth manufacturers insist their products can coexist with collegiality. SnapCab founder and CEO Glenn Bostock said the glass walls of his company’s pods allow for a sense of connection with co-workers.

“They can see you,” he said. “You can wave at them. You can still interact with people visually but you get that audio privacy.”

Other products seek a different balance between isolation and community. Furniture maker Steelcase offers a desk-encircling tent meant to ensure “territorial privacy” instead of silence. Nook, headquartered in the U.K., makes hut-shaped hideaways intended to provide sense of psychological safety without being completely enclosed.

Nook founder David O’Coimin said an office filled with phone booths “is like you have a jail instead of having a workplace.”

Furniture distributor Thinkspace sells booths that Sid Meadows, principal and vice president, said are designed to allow a low level of outside sound. Humans are wired to crave some background noise, he said, pointing to popular YouTube videos of ambient office chatter.

That matches the findings of a study co-authored by Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing and Performance. She and colleagues discovered people became stressed when their surroundings were too quiet as well as too loud. The typical volume of birdsong, at 45 decibels, appears to be just right.

Nick Fine, a user-experience researcher in London, describes himself as an “old school, pre pandemic office worker” who enjoys the hubbub of a busy workplace. But the now-hybrid worker still spends considerable time in an enclosed pod to work without overhearing his colleagues’ chatter on days he’s in the office.

“I have ADHD and working in a pod engages my hyper focus,” he said, adding he likes having the booth option when the din is too much.

Farmer’s Fridge, which sells fresh salads out of vending machines, has eight pods made by Zenbooth and a plethora of conference rooms in its Chicago office. It offers about 40 hideaways for the 85 people who work there, yet that bounty of isolation isn’t always enough, even for the CEO.

“I actually live three minutes from here,” said Luke Saunders, also the company’s founder. “If I really have to get work done, I do it at home.”



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A Killer Golf Swing Is a Hot Job Skill Now

Companies are eager to hire strong players who use hybrid work schedules to schmooze clients on the course

By CALLUM BORCHERS
Fri, Jun 14, 2024 5 min

Standout golfers who aren’t quite PGA Tour material now have somewhere else to play professionally: Corporate America.

People who can smash 300-yard drives and sink birdie putts are sought-after hires in finance, consulting, sales and other industries, recruiters say. In the hybrid work era, the business golf outing is back in a big way.

Executive recruiter Shawn Cole says he gets so many requests to find ace golfers that he records candidates’ handicaps, an index based on average number of strokes over par, in the information packets he submits to clients. Golf alone can’t get you a plum job, he says—but not playing could cost you one.

“I know a guy that literally flies around the world in a private jet loaded with French wine, and he golfs and lands hundred-million-dollar deals,” Cole says.

Tee times and networking sessions have long gone hand-in-golf-glove. Despite criticism that doing business on the course undermines diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and the fact that golf clubs haven’t always been open to women and minorities —people who mix golf and work say the outings are one of the last reprieves from 30-minute calendar blocks

Stars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie West helped expand participation in the sport. Still, just 22% of golfers are nonwhite and 26% are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.

To lure more people, clubs have relaxed rules against mobile-phone use on the course, embracing white-collar professionals who want to entertain clients on the links without disconnecting from the office. It’s no longer taboo to check email from your cart or take a quick call at the halfway turn.

With so much other business conducted virtually, shaking hands on the green and schmoozing over clubhouse beers is now seen as making an extra effort, not slacking off.

Americans played a record 531 million rounds last year. Weekday play has nearly doubled since 2019, with much of the action during business hours , according to research by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom .

“It would’ve been scandalous in 2019 to be having multiple meetings a week on the golf course,” Bloom says. “In 2024, if you’re producing results, no one’s going to see anything wrong with it.”

A financial adviser at a major Wall Street bank who competes on the amateur circuit told me he completes 90% of his tasks by 10 a.m. because he manages long-term investment plans that change infrequently. The rest of his workday often involves golfing with clients and prospects. He’s a member of a private club with a multiyear waiting list, and people jump at the chance to join him on a course they normally can’t access.

There is an art to bringing in business this way. He never initiates shoptalk, telling his playing partners the round is about having fun and getting to know each other. They can’t resist asking about investment strategies by the back nine, he says.

Work hard, play hard

Matt Parziale golfed professionally on minor-league tours for several years, but when his dream of making the big time ended, he had to get a regular job. He became a firefighter, like his dad.

A few years later he won one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country, earning spots in the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for first among non-pros.

The brush with celebrity brought introductions to business types that Parziale, 35 years old, says he wouldn’t have met otherwise. One connection led to a job with a large insurance broker. In 2022 he jumped to Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates in Wellesley, Mass., which recognised his golf game as a tool to help win large accounts.

He rescheduled our interview because he was hosting clients at a private club on Cape Cod, and squeezed me in the next morning, before teeing off with a business group in Newport, R.I.

A short time ago, Parziale couldn’t imagine making a living this way. Now he’s the norm in elite amateur golf circles.

“I look around at the guys at the events I play, and they all have these jobs ,” he says.

His boss, Chief Executive Chip Gibson, says Parziale is good at bringing in business because he puts as much effort into building relationships as honing his game. A golf outing is merely an opportunity to build trust that can eventually lead to a deal, and it’s a misconception that people who golf during work hours don’t work hard, he says.

Barry Allison’s single-digit handicap is an asset in his role as a management consultant at Accenture , where he specialises in travel and hospitality. He splits time between Washington, D.C., and The Villages, Fla., a golf mecca that boasts more than 50 courses.

It can be hard to get to know people in distributed work environments, he says. Go golfing and you’ll learn a lot about someone’s temperament—especially after a bad shot.

“If you see a guy snap a club over his knee, you don’t know what he’s going to snap next,” Allison says.

Special access

On a recent afternoon I was a lunch guest at Brae Burn Country Club, a private enclave outside Boston that was the site of U.S. Golf Association championships won by legends like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. I parked in the second lot because the first one was full—on a Wednesday.

My host was Cullen Onstott, managing director of the Onstott Group executive search firm and a former collegiate golfer at Fairfield University. He explained one reason companies prize excellent golfers is they can put well-practiced swings on autopilot and devote most of their attention to chitchat.

It’s hard to talk with potential customers about their needs and interests when you’re hunting for errant shots in the woods. It’s also challenging if you show off.

The first hole at Brae Burn is a 318-yard par 4 that slopes down, enabling big hitters like Onstott to reach the putting green in a single stroke. But to stay close to his playing partners and keep the conversation flowing, he sometimes hits a shorter shot.

Having an “in” at an exclusive club can make you a catch. Bo Burch, an executive recruiter in North Carolina, says clubs in his region tend to attract members according to their business sectors. One might be chock-full of real-estate investors while another has potential buyers of industrial manufacturing equipment.

Burch looks for candidates who are members of clubs that align with his clients’ industries, though he stresses that business acumen comes first when filling positions.

Tami McQueen, a former Division I tennis player and current chief marketing officer at Atlanta investment firm BIP Capital, signed up for private golf lessons this year. She had noticed colleagues were wearing polos with course logos and bringing their clubs to work. She wanted in.

McQueen joined business associates on the golf course for the first time in March at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She has lowered her handicap to a respectable 26 and says her new skill lends a professional edge.

“To be able to say, ‘I can play with you and we can have those business meetings on the course’ definitely opens a lot more doors,” she says.

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This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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