Saturday, May 25, 2013

Shattering the myths of the modern office

It all started when the Brown sisters fell off the wall.

San Francisco's geriatric, heavily madeup and seemingly omnipresent twins -- Marian and Vivian -- were dressed to the nines, smiling broadly for the camera. Their framed photo was a fixture atop the shelf of "The Happy Box," my editor's office/reservoir for dry cleaning. Steve never really used the office as offices are designed to be used. He preferred doing his business, so to speak, in his cubicle in the heart of the newsroom.

The Happy Box was for one-on-one meetings. Those could be viewed through the glass front by anyone who walked along the office's main hallway or by anyone who peered through a mysterious side-wall window. More often than not, they also could be heard by other parts of the newsroom, in part because Steve's tenor laugh -- typically accompanied by a "Boom, baby" and a high five -- would gush through the poorly constructed walls.

If ever I was an editor again, I vowed, I'd take a page from Steve's playbook. After all, he was my best boss: understanding, enthusiastic, funny and a barking news hound, as he would say in the ads he placed for reporters. His laissez-faire style suited me to a certain degree. Having no office -- no literal or figurative walls -- equaled enlightened leadership. I still believe that.

When I did leave the newspaper to take an editor job, however, I succumbed to the trappings of the office. The publisher and general manager had it all planned before I arrived. They ordered a huge desk for my spacious office that formed a peninsula for my chair, took up parts of two walls, partially covered a window and still left enough space in the room for a nursery or a small herd of grazing cows.

When I moved to another editorship, I was set up in a pseudo-office: four walls and a door but the walls went up only about 10 feet, so anything said in my glorified cubicle could easily be heard by anyone. In one of my more angry, insane moments, I tried to strip down the walls, much to the dismay of the co-workers to whom I wanted to be closer.

"Stay where you are, Ron. Really. Please," I'm sure they thought.

When I returned to San Francisco a few years later, Steve's office had officially been dubbed The Happy Box. I know not of the origin of the name, but with Steve leaving our flock in the next week, I'll have to ask.

I tend to believe that a new editor will be someone who uses his office more traditionally, and I -- and the staff as a whole -- am not taking well to the prospects of those changes.

"Change is a function of desire," a recent corporate webinar attempted to instill in us. I believe that is not true. Change is a function of good leadership and good, honest communication. Desire will follow.

After my dad died, and I broke down while telling Steve at his cubicle, Steve led me toward The Happy Box. He turned slightly at the door with his arms out. I took that opening to hug him. I remembered the pain he shared with me when his father-in-law passed away nearly a decade earlier. But maybe I hugged him because Steve shares a lot with my brother: They're both named Steve, they're tall, lanky dudes in their 50s with a carefree veneer and a penchant for the wacky. Starting in a few days, too, they'll both be unemployed, though hardly unemployable.

Mind you, I've seen people leave The Happy Box unhappily. Myself and a real estate reporter were summoned there after we were scooped by the Chronicle on a story about the owner of the Bank of America building putting the San Francisco landmark on the market. We don't get beaten by the Chronicle, Steve would say, much less on a real estate story. How could this happen? he wanted to know. What are you going to do about it now?

I was just the banking reporter, I remember thinking, there's no way after arriving in San Francisco a little more than a year before that I had the sources to get that story. My bad, yes; my fault, no -- so I pondered more on the what-are-we-doing-to-do-now aspect.

Our real estate reporter caught the brunt of Steve's rare reproach. But that's OK; that was 2000, and The Happy Box wasn't known as The Happy Box at the time.

Actually, I focused more on Steve's picture of the Brown twins. There was something reassuring about them, dressed in the way that people would walk around town in the 1950s or '60s. They were the twins that time forgot. Getting out for the Brown twins was about the adventure, not the functional or mundane. Look your best. Have fun. Let people take your picture.

So when someone closed the door to The Happy Box a few months ago and the frame holding the photo of the Brown twins slipped off the shelf and suddenly crashed to the floor, it was the end of an era. The photo was safe, but the glass was shattered, and everyone knew Steve wouldn't get a new frame.