Sometimes You Just Needed a Break. (And Even Those Could Be Fraught.)
New York magazine|April 26 - May 9, 2021
James Camp

1966: An office New Year’s Eve party at a Madison Avenue advertising agency.

The Perks of a Bad Habit

One morning in 1989, the employees of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette arrived to discover that their ashtrays, overnight, had become decorative. A banner had been tacked to one wall: the nonsmokers have won. Until that point, “it was much more going outside to take a break from smoking than taking a break to smoke,” recalls Mark Manson, then an equity research analyst with the firm. But as the decade ended, this was starting to invert at offices across New York. To breathe fresh air, you would simply stay inside, and to smoke, you would have to go out. Down on the street, looking for a nook, you would face enemies: joggers, windchill. It was “a tragic day, an infamous day,” Manson says. It was the future. By 1994, the year the City Council introduced the first of the Smoke-Free Air Acts, the smoke breaks outside Manhattan office buildings had become, if not a tourist attraction, a thing tourists noticed. Dr. Alan Blum, a longtime anti-tobacco activist, likes to tell the story of a Japanese real-estate magnate who, on a drive through lower Manhattan, smiled at all the young women out smoking: “So many prostitutes in New York City.”

The Times called it an “exile.” Two, three, four times per day (the most breaks a 1997 study of New York sidewalks by Philip Morris recorded anyone taking is nine), the worker-smoker, putting on her sunglasses or puffy coat, would nip outdoors, select a spot (“Adult smokers are loyal to their typical smoking spot,” the study reported), and let ten or so minutes float by while inhaling an aerosolized mixture of 6.1 parts per million formaldehyde. The smoker was free to go because she was unwelcome to stay, a perk that, to some, seemed like a punishment, and a policy whose particulars varied (until the 2003 ban) by workplace, shop, and the boss’s whim. No rite of office life has pissed off more people. “It was the fate of worker privilege writ large,” says the historian Gregory Wood, the author of a book on the subject, who also called the smoke break, in an age of weakening unions, a “microcosm of declining worker power.” This microcosm went well with coffee.

The Times quoted a smoke-breaker named Alan Yeck: “The isolation wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the condemnation.” Recent tobacco scholarship more or less agrees about why workplace smoking ended. Not health concerns, not carcinogens: overhead. “The bottom line was that nonsmoking policies were good for the bottom line,” writes Sarah Milov in 2019’s The Cigarette.


The Open-Plan Miracle Was an Auditory Disaster

To quiet the din, consider a 1976 Acoustic Conditioner.

By Alexandra Lange

Offices, particularly the open plans touted for their creative collisions, were designed to foster interaction. Promoters of the open plan compared it to “a busy restaurant or lively cocktail party,” writes Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler in her recent book, Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office, “where the general ambient noise of the space masked the individual conversations such that one could reasonably have a fairly private conversation despite being surrounded by people.” But as Robert Propst, the Herman Miller designer known as “the father of the cubicle,” soon found out, most workplaces required a little more masking, and so the plans intended to spark our creativity also spawned a new set of designs to fix the noise.

In 1976, the Acoustic Conditioner was born. Each spherical conditioner, set atop a slender stalk, could be clipped to the top of a padded partition and was intended to “condition” the atmosphere for workers within a 12-foot diameter while looking like a George Lucas reject.

Most companies focused on less obtrusive office-wide technology, hiding machines behind acoustic ceiling tiles (yes, ugly drop ceilings have a purpose) and upgrading low-tech noise dampeners like carpets and curtains. Weyerhaeuser, whose 1971 eco headquarters outside Seattle has been called the “original green building,” used plants as interior screens and sound baffles—just like the bars and restaurants of the era.

Since then, techniques to keep the noise down have continuously swung between personal tech and holistic hushing. By the 1990s, “hoteling,” the idea that workers would alight at the office only a few days a week, reigned supreme, and tent-inspired structures proliferated. Clive Wilkinson, whose firm designed offices for Google and TBWAChiatDay, provided ad agency Mother with a London location that was all concrete surfaces below and sound-absorbing Marimekko light fixtures above. Ayse Birsel’s 1997 Resolve system for Herman Miller included accessories for personalization, as well as sound-dampening via sail-shaped rolling screens. “People modify their behavior,” HM’s Rick Duffy told Fast Company. “They lower their voices because they can see that other people are trying to work.”

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