Facebook has been in the news a lot lately.
Questions are being raised about the company’s respect for its users’ privacy. At last count, there were 20 lawsuits in different parts of the world, indicating just how strongly people feel about it.
Most recently, Facebook has admitted to striking data deals with Chinese electronic companies, including Huawei, which many are concerned could be used for state-sponsored spying.
But, while the world scrutinizes Facebook’s user privacy, few eyes have turned towards its internal practices. You see, Facebook supposedly has the largest open office in the world. That’s right. Ten acres lined with rows and rows of desks occupied by nearly 3,000 employees (including Zuckerberg himself).
The open office is as synonymous with startups as t-shirt-wearing CEOs. One of the first of these was designed decades ago by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Johnson-Wax Administration Building was widely hailed as revolutionary when it opened in 1939. As an open space with brown desks arranged neatly in a grid, it looked downright radical compared to offices of the time.
But open offices didn’t really take off until the 2000s. The isolation of cubicle offices from the ’50s to ’80s left a lasting impression on new entrepreneurs determined not to have unhappy employees hiding behind five-foot walls in artificial light.
And they were right. With their small spaces and enforced isolation, cubicles offices were, and have always been, a terrible idea.
Staff Comfort 2.0
Today’s startups are constantly trying to one-up each other on who can have the most welcoming working environment. Office snacks have become a trend, with some companies taking things a step further and even providing full meals.
Other tech companies have installed nap rooms, believing a well-slept employee is a happy, productive one who won’t leave them for their competition.
Nearly all of them, determined to avoid the depressing cubicle squares, have opted for the extreme opposite, giving us the open space office.
Nowadays, most of us work in an open space office. We’re often able to attract the attention of a member of another team simply by reaching over and tapping them or standing up and waving.
This lets us form better relationships than we were all relegated to our cubicles. It’s all very good and positive, isn’t it?
Well, no. Not really.
Zuckerberg’s Privacy Oopsies
Facebook set out to quiet any misgivings about its permanence when it built its Menlo Park office. Not only is it an impressive campus, with rooftop gardens and striking architecture, it’s also, supposedly, the largest open office space in the world.
If you were on the tech scene in 2015, you probably heard about it. Websites published breathless descriptions of the space, with photos of employees, including Zuckerberg, at work. The office was seen as a nod of approval of the open space from one of the largest employers in tech. According to its designers, the office’s expanse encourages creativity and collaboration, meaning Facebook is able to quickly communicate these principles with its employees and visitors to the Menlo Park 20 (or MPK20) building.
Much like its office, Facebook’s social media platform is lauded as a utopia. Its open billion-user network welcomes a lot of exciting possibilities. But, concerns raised about user privacy are louder than ever before.
Just this year, the platform has been involved in three different privacy gaffes. The first was in January when the EU announced new data protection laws. Facebook complied with these rather quietly, even releasing an updated set of privacy principles to its users.
A month later, a Belgian court threatened the social network with a $120 million fine if they continued to track user information across third-party sites. Facebook appealed the ruling, insisting they’d given users the right to opt out of its data collection.
Most prominently, news broke in March that Facebook was aware of yet another privacy breach. This time, through the British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica. Users allegedly had their data mined through seemingly harmless personality quizzes by a Russian data scientist, which was then sold to the firm, which was working on the Trump campaign at the time.
Depending on who you talk to, Cambridge Analytica is one of the big reasons why Trump was elected. But that claim is disputed. It is clear though, that Cambridge Analytica tried to use millions of users’ data to get a president elected, an idea that has everyone curling their lip in distaste.
When the news broke, the fallout was swift and harsh. And it continues to this day.
Mark Zuckerberg is still on his mea culpa tour, sending his most senior staff to appear in front of governments and courts, or testifying himself. As Facebook has repeated several times this year, it takes the opinions and privacy of its users very seriously and never meant for things to get this bad. Zuckerberg’s apology tour is just a sign of how upset they are about an honest mistake that wasn’t supposed to happen.
But, looking inside a person’s house is usually the best way to find out how they think. And Facebook’s glass house is a magnet for stones.
No Quiet; Online and Off
When Facebook opened MPK20, the enthusiasm around open space offices was already waning. More and more studies were showing that the open space was, in fact, a terrible experience for employees. Despite this, Facebook touted its new building design, emphasizing the collaborative environment and the informal atmosphere.
It’s got all the bells and whistles. Well, except doors.
MPK20 is truly meant to be the benchmark other startup offices should aspire to emulate. This is according to all the designers and architects anyway.
But what about the staff?
Research shows that open spaces actually reduce productivity and leave employees feeling frustrated. The lack of privacy is unsettling and the loss of personal space, while a non-issue for some, can prove to be deal breaker for many others.
In theory, it might sound like a good idea to be able to hold impromptu meetings with a member of another team at any time of the day, or to be within high-fiving distance of your CEO. But what about your coworker who’s sitting next to you during these impromptu meetings? And what if you just don’t want to have your CEO’s eyes on you all day?
Despite the overwhelmingly positive message presented by the press on MPK20, not all of Facebook’s staff are fans of the great open space. In a comment to a story on the design’s impact on developers, a former Facebook employee said:
“…the huge, open offices were one of my least favourite parts about the job. It’s very difficult to concentrate when there’s constant background noise…lots of people tried to suggest that we should trial team-sized offices or at least something different to the status quo, even providing studies and statistics to back up their hypotheses, but the requests always fell on deaf ears.”
Facebook’s lack of concern for its employees’ privacy does raise questions about just how much it cares about its users.
MPK20 has some great perks but the biggest employee concerns seem to have been ignored completely in exchange for what senior staff and designers wanted. Much like the most glaring problem with the building’s design, it’s growing increasingly obvious that unless Facebook is strong armed, whatever changes it makes to its platforms are mostly for the benefit of advertisers and investors.
It’s one thing to encourage interaction. But enforcing constant surveillance has far reaching consequences both in the workplace and online. The open space office becomes, for some, a place where productivity goes to die under the watchful eye of their equally uncomfortable colleagues.
With the tech giant’s apparent nod of approval, the countless employees speaking up against the open space are being told that despite the damning proof, businesses are not prepared to trust employees to take control of their own productivity in private spaces.
Much like the office, Facebook’s platform puts surveillance, and ultimately control, in the hands of people who have the right amount of power to access the tools needed to do so. Many people may think that sharing the details of where you’ve been in the last three years may not be a big deal. “After all,” you might think, “I have nothing to hide.”
But the stunning revelations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal show that these details can be used to transform you and your family’s lives in far flung ways you could not have thought of.
The positive possibilities are endless. But then, so are the negative.
Open spaces are advantageous, to some extent, as is knowing about your users. But Facebook’s attempt to usher in an online and physical space almost completely devoid of boundaries and voluntary isolation is a direction other tech companies are understandably wary of.
In an era where companies are realizing the advantages of providing employees with team-sized office spaces or letting them work from home, Facebook is taking a surprisingly archaic step backward.
Like the growing discontent with its offices, Facebook could have prevented the privacy snafu it’s currently facing if it had just listened to its users’ previous concerns. It’s a tough but valuable lesson others can learn.
Despite the opinions of your startup’s highly qualified designers, strategists and engineers, sometimes it’s better to admit that the best person to make decisions about their privacy is none other than the users themselves.
This content was originally published on the Veem blog. Check it out for more information and exclusive articles.