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Skeuomorphic Factories

"Hovering" managers isn't a new concept. Image found on http://historicalphotosblog.com.

“The whole modern office building is pretty much just a skeuomorphic version of the industrial revolution factory.” @johndilworth

A brief history

Before the Industrial Revolution, production work was done by specialists in their homes. Regarded as a "putting-out system," the people doing that work were craftsmen and were paid based on the quality of their work.

When the Industrial Revolution happened, the putting-out system was considered inefficient and wasteful. Instead of focusing on craftsmanship, work was itemized and many workers were brought into central factories where their piecemeal work could be monitored and controlled, all in the name of speed. During this new kind of manufactured work, time really was money. Every second counted. Managers and supervisors were there to make sure the workers were efficient.

Manufacturing discontent

Now we live in a post-industrial society. Most of the work done in office buildings is decidedly not manufacturing. When you consider the people in offices who actually produce products or services, they resemble craftsman, not workers in an assembly line.

So why are we still traveling to a central location to get this kind of work done? Many people argue that it’s for collaboration (I’ll get to that in a later post). But the reality is that our modern offices are relics. They’re holdouts from the days when workers were thought of cogs in the machine. And much of the language and culture of the factory still impacts our office work.

If it talks like a duck

If you work in the tech industry, just consider the following terms, lifted directly from the Industrial Revolution: Workstation, efficiency, monitor, supervisor, manager, production, accountability, lean, alignment, quality assurance, bottleneck, breakroom, etc. In fact, with the rise of lean startup principles, we’re STILL stealing concepts from manufacturing. And while some of these concepts and ideas may be instructive, the work we do still resembles craft more than assembly.

What’s most amusing to me is the way that office culture keeps pushing to feel more like home. From ping-pong tables to beanbag rooms, from kitchens to gyms, the offices that are considered cool are those that resemble a dorm. And don’t get me started on cubicles. Oh ok, just a quick aside.

Cubicles were designed at Herman Miller, initially under the direction of George Nelson. They eventually became Herman Miller's most successful product. However, George disagreed with and eventually distanced himself from the project. Here’s what he had to say about cubicles:

“One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for ‘employees’ (as against individuals), for ‘personnel,’ corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.”

Skeuomorphic is a long word

These are a few quick examples, but there’s so much more to this comparison than I’m willing to bore you with right now. Just know that when you step into an office building, you’re stepping into obsolescence.

More to come.

Pantless in Suburbia

The "treehouse" aka  "Mysterious Trousers unofficial world headquarters"

A couple of weeks ago, I broke a long streak. I finally met one of our team members in person when I dropped off a new Mysterious Trousers t-shirt. Until then, he’d been working with us for a year and a half and I had never seen him. In fact, my only idea of what he looked like was from his Twitter avatar.

I’ve taken great pride in the fact that our small company is 100% remote. And I found tremendous satisfaction in telling people that we worked with people on our team for years without ever really “meeting” them.

37Signals just announced that they’re about to release a book about remote work and the Stack Overflow team has been talking a lot about it. I'm feeling optimistic that maybe this thing will actually become a thing.

If you’re starting a company or have any sway at all with your current employer, do whatever you have to to make them go remote, at least for part of the time. I’ll be talking more about it in the coming days and how we do it at Mysterious Trousers. We'd love to have you join the discussion.

An all-new Mysterious Trousers

Well we’re kicking the tires on a brand new site and an all new product roadmap. The roadmap includes a big new product, an upgrade plan for all our existing apps, and a rad team that will help us build all this cool new stuff.

2013 is turning out to be the biggest year yet for our small company and we can’t wait to show you more. Stay tuned.