The Secret, Essential Geography of the Office

A workplace has its own informal cardinal directions: elevatorward, kitchenward, bathroomward. It’s a map we share. From an essay: I love visiting offices, listening to their hum. Literally: I sometimes went to a giant financial firm where they traded different kinds of securities on different floors, and if it was a big day in bonds the fourth floor would be loud, loud; the fifth floor, though, focused on shorter-term investments, would be almost silent. You could hear the economy. I enjoy the rituals of visiting. First, there is security: How long will I wait? Who will greet me in the lobby, should I ever gain access — a human whose job is to handle ingress and egress, or is each person expected to greet their own visitors? Will I get a VISITOR sticker, and will the sticker change color in a day, for security purposes? Is the coffee brought to me or may I get it myself? Sometimes you learn that people have had sex in a given office, which is hard to forget. There are cardinal directions — elevatorward, kitchenward, bathroomward. Favored stalls. Better sinks. Teensy little geographies shared between humans.

I have a friend who worked at the White House, back in calmer times, and he told me about some of his workplace battles. I said to him one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said in my life: “The White House seems like a really political place to work.” I still cringe to think of it. Yet it’s a place where power is absolutely explicit and geography means everything. And “place,” as Tuan points out, is really a proxy for time. The president might summon anyone any moment of the day, from anywhere in the nation. If you work in one of the rare offices in the West Wing, instead of across the alley at the enormous Executive Office Building, you can be in the Oval Office in a minute. It’s purely about time, measured in the count of footsteps between you and power. Everyone knows that. The West Wing offices themselves absolutely suck. The whole place smells weird.