What would Jane Jacobs think of Marissa Mayer?

Seen on a Toronto Street/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

John Kay, a columnist at the Financial Times, offers up a sort of defence of Marissa Mayer's order that everyone get back to the office. He starts off all very Jacobsean, describing the interactions that happen when you walk the streets of a city like New York. He notes that "the life of cities is the product of multiple, unplanned social interactions."

He then tries to compare what happens in the street to what happens in an office complex.

If unplanned social interactions are the key to a vibrant city, they are also the key to a vibrant organisation. I do not suppose Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer never [sic] met Jane Jacobs, and the technology executive might have found little in common with the community activist. But there are clear analogies between Yahoo’s retreat from home teleworking and Jacobs’ rout of the town planners.

He then gets it absolutely, completely and totally upside down and backwards.

The enthusiasts for the virtual organisation, like the designers of the planned city, seek to impose a structure of rational organisation on a system they understand only imperfectly. Teleworking is the equivalent in cyber space of the corridor of offices, each with its own closed door. Modern office architects have abandoned the corridor in favour of open spaces where communication does not require the deliberation involved in opening an office door, picking up a telephone or sending email. “Communications and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side” – the memo is Yahoo’s, the sentiment is Jacobs’.

Office Space/Screen capture

Jane Jacobs would hardly call what goes on inside a suburban office complex anything like what happens in the street, where interactions are random and not always pleasant. They are not always with people you see every day, who fit in an office hierarchy and may be your boss. The teleworker in a coffee shop is getting a lot more unplanned social interaction in an hour than an employee in an office park is getting in a week.

And what virtual organization seeks " to impose a structure of rational organisation."? The very opposite is true. As a managing editor of a virtual org, I don't care about imposing anything. Writers can work where and how they want, and do. All I care about is performance.

Albert Camus wrote: “All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant's revolving door.”

They are not born by forcing people into suburban office complexes against their will.

Tags: Urban Life | Urban Planning | Work