Forced Togetherness Fridays: Depression

With multiple suicides of noted figures making headlines this week, it is no surprise that depression, too, has been a major topic of discussion, both in the news and on social media.

First, let’s look at depression itself.  I am not a psychologist, nor a licensed professional of any sort when it comes to mental and emotional health.  I am, however, someone who has dealt with depression.  Mostly mild, but sometimes quite severe.  And it’s different from sadness.  Sadness is a rich feeling, albeit a deeply painful one at times.  Depression is a hole, an absence of feeling that can be very debilitating and frustrating.  Most of the time, it is just something that comes and goes periodically, like the tides, seasonal flooding, or the marine layer that often blankets San Francisco.  Sometimes it is the byproduct of prolonged stress, from a workplace, from relationships, or really anything.  When Luna was diagnosed with cancer, and when she later passed away, there was tremendous sadness and grief.  But the depression is separate from sadness, and in the case of Luna’s illness, it was from the stress and sometimes a sense of helplessness that came in between those events.

Another thing that can cause or exacerbate depression is a sense of being trapped.  This can be confinement to a physical space, but also mental or metaphoric.  The sense of being “trapped” in the wrong birth gender would be one example, as would being trapped in a bad relationship (a long time ago), or any number of negative workplace experiences over the years.  It can come from being trapped by others expectations, or fear of being judged and shamed for something as simple as deciding what to eat for lunch.  One can also feel trapped by negative emotions like sadness and the fact that our culture sanctions very few outlets for them outside of grief.

The most important thing, I have found, is to reduce the sense of feeling trapped.  Like reducing artificial barriers on a shoreline, it allows the emotions to ebb and flow more gradually and naturally, and not get caught up as easily in dangerous cycles.  That could be something small, like going out for a walk and getting fresh air, or deciding to leave a bad job.  It could be a good cry – I find adorable pictures of cats can be a good way of inducing a depression-cleansing cry.  But more often than not, the activity requires a fair amount of space and solitude.  Like a road trip, playing one of the synthesizers, or cuddling with my cat.

Well-intended inquiries and offers of company can actually have the opposite effect and can lead to feeling even more trapped, stressed, and depressed. In a sense, this is bringing a “forced togetherness” situation into the picture.  The best thing to do to help, outside of a genuine crisis situation, is to let people know you are there if needed, and then wait for your friend or loved one to take the lead.  Don’t assume, and don’t treat the depression as something that needs to be tamped out.  Do listen, because sometimes all a depressed person needs at the moment is to be heard and acknowledged, not to take action.  And let them tell you what they need: if it’s company,  help with a particular problem, or simply to be left alone and to feel free to be themselves and do what they wish without judgment.

Of course, none of this applies in a genuine crisis situation, where the immediate needs of the crisis take precedent.  While we sometimes have to make a call on whether a situation is a crisis, but handling it is often best left to professionals if possible.

The other caveat is that everything I have described is deeply individual and likely to be different for different people.  But that is the most important point.  Everyone is different and experiences depression differently.  And attempting to force the same solutions or advice can only make things worse.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: The Circle

Multiple friends and readers have noted the similarities in my observations and critiques of “forced togetherness” in the tech industry to the eponymous tech giant in The Circle, Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel.  So in today’s edition of the series, we examine The Circle more closely, and what we can learn from its example.  We are going to focus specifically on the Eggers novel and not the film adaptation starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks – and there will be some spoilers, though we won’t give away the ending.

The Circle chronicles a critical stage of the evolution of the company of the same name, as seen through the eyes of a young newcomer, Mae Holland.  The book can largely be divided into the overlapping stories of Mae’s experience working inside the company, and the larger implications of The Circle’s ambitions and vision on society as a whole.  The two are intertwined, as The Circle intends to remake society into a utopia based on its own internal culture.  But that internal culture, especially in the novel’s first act, is what most concerns us here.>

We first encounter Mae, a recent college grad, as she is leaving behind her dead-end job in her tiny hometown in the Central Valley.  The town, Longfield, is described as being halfway between Fresno and Tranquility, suggesting that it might be modeled after the real town of Kerman, California.  But I digress.  Mae scores an opportunity to work at The Circle via her friend and former college roommate Annie, who is a senior member of The Circle’s leadership focusing on regulatory issues.

The company’s campus has details that could easily have been drawn from the real-life headquarters of Google or Facebook.  Similarly, the company’s culture seems like Google or Facebook on steroids.  There are food and recreational opportunities everywhere, including regular parties and over-the-top live entertainment from well-known bands.  Indeed the fitness, medical facilities, and cafeterias seem mundane compared to the over-the-top cultural aspects that scream “forced togetherness.”  It is clear from the start that the goal is to keep Circlers on campus as much as possible, whether or not they are working or playing.  Perhaps this hit a little closer-to-home for me than other readers, as I see this as the most cynical and insidious aspect of tech-company culture.

We see the culture of The Circle seeping into Mae’s actual job, which is as a customer-experience agent.  The job itself is straightforward and reasonable, she answers questions from clients (think folks like us who sometimes buy Facebook ads, incorporate Paypal payments, etc.). Clients can rate her service, and that is factored into her job performance, with the goal to get as close to a 100% rating as possible.  She also gets pinned to clients she has previously helped, allowing her to develop relationships with them. There is a steady queue of incoming requests.  Stressful and high-pressured, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary for work.  Things get darker as Mae discovers that her social participation in life at The Circle is judged as significantly, of not more than, her job performance.  After neglecting to set up her social profiles (similar to a Facebook profile but with internal-and-external facing personae), she is chastised by the annoyingly perky social-media representatives who come to make sure she follows through and sets it up.  She is scolded for not being on campus over a weekend.  Mind you, not that she wasn’t working, but that she wasn’t present.  When she explains that she was visiting her parents and her father’s multiple sclerosis, the topic turns to why she hasn’t joined any Circle online groups for children of people with MS.  Even her solitary joy of kayaking is questioned by one of the representatives, who not only pressures her to join kayaking-enthusiast groups but even suggests they should do so together as this is a passion of his as well.  Later on, Mae is called into her boss’ office who says she is doing a great job but then gives her a serious dressing down about the fact that she is falling behind on social media participation – people at the Circle are ranked by a social-media participation score.  Again, she is scolded for being off campus, visiting her family, and missing yet another “awesome” party.

While reading all the social pressure and lack of personal autonomy being thrown at Mae, I felt my own heart race and my own anxiety levels rise.  Here was everything I rail against in this series, taken to its utmost extreme.  Don’t get me wrong, the campus is amazing and beautiful and full of opportunities – and the fact that Mae’s father finally has access to state-of-the-art care for his MS is great.  But these benefits come at the cost of a lack of boundaries and personal autonomy, things we learn are anathema to The Circle’s vision and business model as well as company culture.

Things come to a head in both the business and personal aspects.  The Circle has developed tiny low-cost and low-powered HD camera that can be placed anywhere or on anyone.  They launch an initiative to have elected leaders “go transparent”, i.e., wear a live-streaming video camera at all times.  Meanwhile, Mae’s job is going well as she determines to rise to the top in the company’s social-media rankings, but her life back home is falling apart.  The cameras and such are quite intrusive for her parents, and her ex-boyfriend (and professional Luddite) Mercer breaks off his contact with her after her attempt to promote his deer-antler-chandelier business backfires spectacularly.  This leads her to seek solace in her one solitary joy, kayaking.  It’s late and she steals a kayak from her friends who run a small rental business.  It is foggy that night, but she paddles out far into the bay and ends up near the real-life Red Rock Island and Richmond-San-Rafael Bridge.  I could see myself seeking out a similar solitary passion in such a stressful situation, such as a “fun with highways” trip.  Unbeknownst to her, there was one of The Circle’s tiny cameras near the kayak shop, and her entire caper is recorded and seen by the company’s leaders.  Not only does this get her in trouble for potentially committing a crime, it also leads to another round of recriminations about her autonomy and distance from the rest of the company.

As Act 1 of the novel comes to a close, Mae makes a fateful decision to salvage her career by going “transparent.”  Act 2 follows the transparent Mae has she live-streams life on the campus and gets intertwined with things darker and darker about The Circle’s dystopian ambitions, which include a devotion to transparency and demonization of privacy.  Forced-togetherness becomes not just part of the company culture, but the vision for society as a whole!  Everyone connected at all times, full transparency, no boundaries, no privacy.  This ghastly possibility is what The Circle promotes as a utopia.

When Mae was suffering under the cultural pressure of The Circle in Act 1, she remained a sympathetic character.  But as she embraces The Circle’s internal and external vision, she becomes a much less sympathetic character, and I began to distrust and even detest her.   But at the same time, her ex Mercer, who is set up as the skeptical foil to The Circle’s vision, is not particularly likable, either.  He is a self-righteous prig.  Indeed, in the end, there is not one character who comes out positive.  Dislikable and untrustworthy characters are a mainstay of Eggers’ fiction and make for great reading.  But in this cas,e they hit close enough to home to be rather disconcerting.

It is, of course, important to remember that The Circle is fiction.  None of the campuses I have visited, none of the businesses I have seen in depth, are nearly as sinister, though each has aspects that could lead to The Circle, both inside and out.  I hope we can figure out how to balance these competing challenges and they become closer to reality without going completely to the extreme in the other direction.  We don’t want to become Mae, but we shouldn’t have to become Mercer to avoid becoming her.  The technology is amazing, as long as we retain control and autonomy around it.  And we see this playing out in real life right now (e.g., consider the recent privacy scandals involving Facebook) and with increasing public awareness. So there is hope.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Open Floor Plans and Sexism


[By Mozilla in Europe (Flickr: London Workspace) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Open floor plans are de rigeur in the high-tech industry, but they have also become trendy of late in other industries as well.  The are loved by some, hated by others. On a purely aesthetic level, I quite like open-floor-plan spaces.  After all, CatSynth HQ is a two-level open-plan space.  When they are modern, with lots of light, air, glass and metal, they can be quite beautiful and inviting.  The example from Mozilla’s UK office that opens this article is one such example.  On the other hand, some can just be boring and utilitarian, as if someone just took an old office space and knocked out some walls.


[By Benn (https://www.flickr.com/photos/benn/196447297/) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Aesthetics aside, the problems with open plans aren’t the spaces themselves.  It’s what happens when you put a lot of people in them.  For some, a busilling hive of activity with constant access to other people can be a boon, but for many is a source of intense anxiety and can feel even more confining than a small private office.

The problems of open office spaces can be especially challenging for women.  As reported in this article in Fast Co Design, the open design combined with everyday sexism can exacerbate the difficulties or challenges that women face in the workplace:

Fascinatingly, the study did not start out as an examination of gender specifically–it was meant as an examination of how workplace culture shifts when office design changes radically. It was only when Hirst, who conducted interviews on-site and spent a lot of time observing the workplace, began to feel pressure to dress in a more feminine way herself that she began to wonder about it. “She was surprised by the unusual amount of care she took over her own appearance, a degree of self-consciousness that she found burdensome as time progressed,” the researchers write. “To ‘fit in’ with the modern, clean aesthetic of the building itself and a dress code that was widely adopted, she departed from her usual preference for wearing jeans and no makeup; adopting a smart trouser suit and putting on makeup.”

Many of the examples in the main article as well as a follow-up featuring stories from readers focus on the extra pressure women feel about their appearances in these environments.  Interestingly, my own experience is somewhat different, but retains the overall sense of pressure.  I usually dress up and always wear makeup for the office, because I enjoy it and it makes me feel good.  But I do feel very self conscious in the open spaces in different ways.  First, I am worried about how mistakes or faux pas may be visible.  And in the world of high-tech, the almost religious embrace of casualness and the way many men, even in leadership, treat their slovenly appearance as a badge of strength or honor, can add subtle pressure.  As a woman, does one fit in, trying to be “one of the guys”, or be oneself and stand out in the sea of casualness?  I could write an entire article just about attire and dress codes – and I will – but there are other forms of sexism at work in open spaces as well.

The biggest problem that I have observed is the lack of privacy, even the privacy to conduct one’s own work efficiently, or conducting those aspects of personal life such as doctors’ appointments or things with family and children, that one has an expectation, even a right, to do from the office. Some companies, including ones where I work, sometimes set aside small spaces, either completely or just slightly enclosed, but it may not be enough, as one reader, Jean A., related:

The open office layouts I’ve sat in have both had ‘privacy’ rooms available, though these tend to be used as one-on-one meeting places almost as frequently as they are used as rooms in which individuals can call someone or even just take a brief rest. One thing in particular that I have noticed is that I like to be able to schedule doctor’s visits (for myself and my mother, whom I care for) while viewing my work calendar so that I can try and avoid missing meetings, but there is really no way to effectively do that privately in an open office floor plan. I have to drag my laptop into the privacy room, hope that the wireless works in that room (which it only rarely does)…

Another reader describes how the lack of privacy in open spaces can exacerbate workplace bullying, as described by reader Elizabeth G:

“The open plan office was in a college and not only was it very exposing as the managers were in a mezzanine level and looked down on us but the desks were butted up against each other and in rows. There was absolutely no privacy, and judgments about folks were made that amounted to a kind of covert bullying. Any absences from the room were noted and commented on. There were two small meeting rooms but they required booking. There was no room to spread documents out if you needed to and anyone could see what was on your screen. Most of us adopted a kind of blindness/deafness to our neighbors. It was also noisy at times, which impacted our concentration or ability to conduct telephone calls. I stuck it out for a year but was relieved to leave.

I have myself experience the stress and drain that comes with the lack of privacy in open spaces, the constant feeling of being watched.  I have also had to deal with novel types of bullying that are rarer in closed spaces.  On several occasions at multiple companies, I found myself chatting with a colleague about a technical matter related to a task at hand, only to have a male colleage come charging over and offer his unsolicited opinion – the ubiquitous and annoying phenomenon of mansplaining.  Sometimes he would be wrong because of missing context, but this did not stop a confident and overbearing manner, which crosses the line into bullying.  One particular egregious example involved my explaining an iOS-specific design requirement to a colleague working deliving a graphic, when suddenly a business-focused male coworker came over and erroneously explained why I was wrong – on top of this, he didn’t even address me directly, just my male colleague at the neighboring desk.  Similarly, some workplace bullies (invariably male in my experience) will use the open space to verbally corner or humiliate a co-worker, something that is unpleasant even behind closed doors, but far worse when it is in view of the entire company.

Then there is the simple problem of constant distraction.  As someone who is trained to use her ears critically, it is difficult to not be distracted by constant conversations happening in an open space, some of which can even be amplified by the acoustic properties of the space.  It is possible to filter them out metally, but this takes a lot of energy that is then drawn away from actually getting work done.  Many companies, including the one I described in last week’s article, have taken to offering noise-cancelling headphones to workers.  While it does cut down on noise distraction, these is merely a band-aid on the problem, and a band-aid that can itself lead to other problems like ear fatigue.

These and other issues, not surprisingly, can lead to increased anxiety.  And while men and women both face anxiety in the workplace, women face the additional challenge of being scrutinized for any display of emotion or “losing one’s cool.”  Open floor planes often leave very little place to work out anxiety, take an emotional break, or simply hide when necessary.  There is the bathroom, and there is going outside.  I use both strategies, including going for long walks away from the office – something that itself can be scrutinized in places that prize forced togetherness.  Readers in the follow-up article also releated similar stories, and in this quote from Emily S:

“I was one of three women at the company. I struggle with anxiety, and the cramped, nowhere-to-hide office layout made matters worse. When I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I would walk a block to a hotel around the corner and hide out in their basement bathroom until things subsided.

“It wasn’t until after a few months of working there that I mentioned this to my other female coworkers and found that they, too, had ‘hiding spots.’ One had a sibling who lived nearby and would go to his apartment, another would go to a department store a few blocks away.

“When I left the company, I made a note in my exit interview that the office setup exacerbated my anxiety and suggested that more consideration be given to employee mental health. I’m not sure if anything changed, but I do know that in my current office–still an open floor plan, but much larger–where there are places to escape to (like sofas, or a phone booth), I’m much happier.”

Of course none of these issues are unique to open floor plans, and many aren’t caused by them.  Sexism and bullying is rampant in a great many environments including the virtual world.  But an open work place where one feels trapped in the gaze of others can make it far worse.  Like Emily in the last quote, I look to companies that offer a variety of heterogenous spaces, some private, as well as opportunities to be remote from co-workers.  And I appreciate companies that put a priority on their workers’ mental health and well being as part of their operations.  It remains to be seen how that plays out in particular in the “forced-togetherness-as-virtue” tech industry, and whether some firms move away from open plans towards more variety of spaces.