I work in a five story office building, six if you include the basement. There are close to 2,000 employees occupying the space each day. Overall, it’s a cubicle farm, with rows of four to six foot high walls portioning out each employee’s workspace. Since the building opened in 1992, there have been a few efforts to rearrange the space, but they have most often been about making more space for more people. I was involved in one such effort in which dozens of work stations were moved eighteen inches to the left in order to make room for another row of cubicles. We all had to box up our belongings so the facilities staff could make the change. While moving to a new workstation can be stressful, or even exciting, most of us felt only a mild pang of annoyance at “scooching over” to make room on the metaphorical couch.
Recently, there have been efforts to create a “modern work environment.” According to the website promoting it, “Building a Modern Work Environment is about trying new ideas — thinking outside the cubicle — and creating an effective, efficient workplace that best suits the important work we do.” In our agency, those efforts have been inconsistent and not universally embraced. “Modern” amenities get added on, like fashion accessories, but the comfortable clothes underneath don’t vary much. Our organization’s rate of culture change is glacial, even receding as new ideas calve off the face of innovation.
Some of the changes are cosmetic, such as the fancy digital signboards stationed in elevator lobbies, in place of paper flipchart easels, designed to communicate information about upcoming events or share important reminders with flashy graphics. As employees rush by on their way back to their cozy cubicle, the signboards are little more than brightly lit subliminal message generators. Hopefully the folks that create the messages are using their powers for good and not promoting Orwellian tenets.
Some changes are about where you do your work and with who (or whom, I can never remember that grammar rule). Telework is being promoted and, recently, we adopted a “infants at work” policy, which allows new parents to bring their six week to six month old babies to the office, helping ease the transition from p/maternity leave to full-time work. I thought it was a great idea and was surprised to hear criticism coming from several female colleagues. I can see their point: if the baby is a colicky mess, no one will be happy, and if it’s a real cutie, cooing all day long, the work group might not be able to focus on their work in favor of waiting for their turn to hold the wee one. As I recall, though, babies sleep for a significant portion of their first six months, so I think it will work out.
To be clear, I’m supportive of the “modern work environment” concept. I’ve even gotten into the swing of it with my office. A colleague and I decided we could share it, so we had her desk moved in to my space. We worked well together, and sharing the office provided an opportunity to collaborate, just like the proverbial brochure advertised. However, she got a promotion and moved out, so now I just have a big office with two desks. One of my employees, who works in another city visits every so often, but he isn’t paying the rent, so I’m accepting applicants for a full-time roommate.
The most recent addition to our modern work environment is the Mindfulness Room. It’s on the third floor, behind a closed door. I went through the door on Friday, and found a dimly lit space that looked a bit like a waiting room. That is, a wading room near the ocean, as the only sound is a recording of waves lapping against a shore. There were several padded chairs next two tables. A young man was sitting in one of the chairs reading. To the right, I saw a folding screen room divider that partitioned the space. When I walked behind the screen, I found two rows of three soft vinyl lounge chairs. It looked a bit like a mass-production therapy lounge. There were no psychiatrists, but the chairs were such that you are forced to lay down more than sit up. I tried reclining in one of them, but it was almost painful to relax enough to allow my head to lay back on the chair. Clearly, I wasn’t ready for this level of mindfulness. I’m not accustomed to laying down at work. It’s almost never on my to-do list.
There was another folding screen, and behind it was a third, more intriguing space. Here, in this inner sanctum, the sound of waves was gone, the lights were even lower, and the space was deeply serene. There were no chairs at all, just eight large square cushions, each topped with a smaller pillow, arranged in a circle on the floor. My first thought was that there was not enough room for eight people to lay down with their heads on the pillows, unless they were a very cuddly group, which is discouraged in most workplaces. Upon reflection, I suppose the pillows are intended for use as cushions to sit on and practice meditation, but it looks like nap time in a kindergarten class.
The idea of the Mindfulness Room is a quiet space where people can go and find some stress relief. It’s a widely studied and highly regarded approach to stress reduction. It’s legit, and I believe in the psychological science of it, but I had a lot of questions: Do you need permission from your supervisor to go there? How long can you stay? Our official breaks are fifteen minutes. Would it be rude to set a timer? Alarms and mindfulness seem contradictory.
I’m not sure I’m ready to explore my mindfulness at the office. Personally, I would be very self-conscious – and not in the good Buddhist way – about going into a quiet room to pursue mindfulness. Perhaps it’s my own shortcoming that I am uncomfortable with the possible stigma associated with it, but I don’t want to lie on a couch or the floor at work. I confess I did it for a few weeks as part of a weekly yoga class, but I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, making it feel like a workout, which it was. Perhaps that implies I’m more a proponent of Hiduism than Buddhism, but I assure you, I was in it for the fitness.
I know John Kabat-Zinn – the chief proponent of mindfulness – has tried to separate the practice from Buddhism, but I like source material. My first encounter with the concept of mindfulness came via my study of Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. Right mindfulness is one of the paths. I am a fan of Buddhism – at least on paper. Like any religion, there are problems in practice and politics. Buddhists have done some terrible things, too. But the spirituality of it, the search for truth and meaning, is valid and beautiful. However, I know that right mindfulness is just one of seven other paths to enlightenment. Specifically, right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, and right “samadhi” (I.e., meditative absorption). I like to think, as public servants, we’ve got the right livelihood part down, but I’m not sure we’re ready for right mindfulness until we get a bit better at the speech and conduct. Spending a few minutes being mindful doesn’t make the bad behavior of co-workers and crappy bosses go away.
While I won’t be visiting the Mindfulness Room too often, I will reserve judgment for those who find value in it. Good for them, being who they are, liking what they like, and doing cool stuff. Personally, I’ll keep my meditation upright and at home. And I will work on the other paths, too, and I don’t mind being more public about them. Considering the abhorrent speech, conduct, effort, and resolve shown by the racists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, I have no intention of sitting quietly and allowing that sort of hate to go unchallenged. Life is too short. Be well, my friends, and take care of each other. We are all in this together.