Virtual Office • Wired Magazine

Here’s an article I wrote in Wired Magazine in 1999 about early virtual offices in Los Angeles.

Lost in Space

It was a bold experiment in creating the office of the future. There were no offices, no desks, no personal equipment. And no survivors.

By Warren Berger

In the end, the employees of the TBWA Chiat/Day advertising agency did what former boss Jay Chiat had wanted them to do all along. They got the hell out of the office.

They finally cleared out last September, moving to new digs down the road and abandoning the Frank Gehry-designed binocular-shaped building in Los Angeles where Chiat, five years earlier, had first unveiled his cocky attempt to tear down the walls of the American workplace.

Shortly after the LA office was vacated, the agency’s downtown New York office—a techno-colored dream factory that had taken the LA experiment to the next level of sheer audacity—was also gutted and left bare. And with that, Jay Chiat’s much-ballyhooed “virtual office,” the work-from-anywhere workplace for the knowledge workers of tomorrow, was officially pronounced dead.

It was an oddly quiet finale for a phenomenon that had been ushered in with all the fanfare of the millennium. When Chiat, perhaps the most influential ad man of the last quarter century, announced in 1993 that he was going to take away his employees’ cubicles and desks, equip them all with portable phones and PowerBooks, and turn them into wandering advertising nomads who could perform their tasks wherever they liked, the story captured the imagination of deskbound drones everywhere.

Oh, to trade places with Chiat’s virtual pioneers, who had been emancipated from cubicle bondage and mundane office protocol, with no time clocks to punch, the freedom to sleep late and say you were working at home, to write at the beach and get paid for it.

It must have resonated particularly in all those squalid newsrooms across America, because there soon appeared prominent stories in The New York Times and other papers, hailing the end of the workplace as we know it. “Thoroughly armed with the modern weaponry of the road warrior,” Time magazine panted, “…the telecommuters of Chiat/Day are among the forerunners of employment in the information age.”

Lost in the gee-whiz coverage, however, was a tiny detail: Almost from the get-go, Chiat’s virtual office was a joke in the advertising world, “the laughingstock of the industry,” recalls Steve Rabosky, a former agency creative director. Not that anyone involved was chuckling much at the time: If Chiat’s “road warriors” had had anything more substantial than flip-top phones in their hands, there would have been blood on the virtual floor. Instead, for a brief, swirling period—a time that may very well cause scary Vietnam-like flashbacks in the heads of copywriters as they henceforth endeavor to craft dialogue for the Taco Bell Chihuahua—the ad agency became engulfed in petty turf wars, kindergarten-variety subterfuge, incessant griping, management bullying, employee insurrections, internal chaos, and plummeting productivity.

Worst of all, there was no damn place to sit.

* * *

As the unofficial story goes, Jay Chiat was skiing down a mountain in Telluride when it dawned on him that the conventional American office structure was antiquated and counterproductive; that revolution was not only inevitable but overdue; and that destiny had selected him, Jay Chiat, as its agent of change.

He could be forgiven his grandiosity, perhaps. Few ad agencies had achieved Chiat/Day’s levels of public renown. From its founding in 1968, it had continually defied the conventions of the trade, relying equally on irreverence and sophisticated film technique. The agency was perhaps best known for helping to launch the Apple Macintosh with an Orwellian Super Bowl commercial titled 1984. It also produced the long-running satirical series featuring the Energizer Bunny. Jay Chiat himself—a striking man with a shock of white hair, an intense stare and a restless manner—stood out as much as his ads.

Jay Chiat (Source: imdb)

But by the early ’90s, his agency was suddenly overshadowed. At the postmodern fringes of the ad business, far from the granite monuments of Madison Avenue, “cooler-than-thou” is a potent marketing tool, as Chiat had long known. But now Chiat/Day was receiving hip checks from a new generation of creative agencies, including the Nike artistes at Portland’s Wieden & Kennedy. Chiat could have simply ratcheted up the cool quotient of his agency’s ads. But he seemed to have recognized that advertising itself was at a crossroads. One of Chiat’s creative directors, Marty Cooke, remembers him walking into a creative session and sneering at the storyboards scattered all around. “He said to us, ‘You guys are the pallbearers at the funeral of advertising,’” recalls Cooke. “To him, we were hopelessly trapped in some old paradigm. What he cared about, at this point, were two things—technology and architecture.”

Chiat knew, moreover, that by combining his two passions he could draw the spotlight and the attention of clients back to his agency. With the virtual office, he pulled one more pink bunny from his hat, providing the media with fresh fodder for all those newly minted “Welcome to Cyberspace” special issues that needed filling.

There was one more factor driving him to go virtual—noxious waste. As Chiat prepared to move his agency into its new West Coast headquarters in the late ‘80s, it was found that the facility’s grounds were contaminated—which necessitated that the site be dug up and the waste removed. This delayed the move by almost two years, and all the while, the ranks of Chiat’s successful agency were swelling. Over time, it became clear that the building was too small for the company. Chiat needed to get rid of some bodies, fast.

None of which is to suggest that Chiat didn’t believe completely in the more noble aspects of what he was about to do.

* * *

Ad people invariably go through the formality of conducting seemingly exhaustive research, which they subsequently ignore. Chiat applied that same vigor as he attacked his concept of a wide-open workplace with no personal space. He sent lieutenants off to Europe to study other modernized office environments. He convened task forces. He engaged his employees in Socratic debate.

“This idea didn’t just happen in a vacuum,” says Chiat, now 67 and retired from the ad business. “I must have talked to 100 people at the agency about it. I’d say, ‘Explain to me what’s wrong with this idea.’ And they’d say, ‘We need private space.’ So I’d say, ‘Why?’ And they’d say, ‘So we can think.’ And I’d say, ‘You will be able to think because you’ll have private space—it just won’t be personal space.’ And they couldn’t dispute the logic of that.”

The shorter version comes from Bob Kuperman, one of Chiat’s top executives at the time: “Jay didn’t listen to anybody, he just did it.”

What Chiat did was set up, in effect, a college campus. “That was my model,” he says. “The idea is, you go to lectures, gather information, but you do your work wherever you like.” To encourage this free-flow, Chiat replaced private offices and cubicles with little clusters of couches and tabletops grouped into common areas, along with a Student Union-like central gathering place and several large conference rooms. He even installed little “Tilt-A-Whirl” domed cars, taken from old amusement park rides, where two people could sit down together and brainstorm—assuming they didn’t mind looking ridiculous as they did it.

While the office was being wired for virtualism—data ports all over the place to plug in the laptops, tiny receivers planted in the ceiling for the radio-frequency phones that employees would use—Chiat continued to rally the troops. He also did a test run. One of the first guinea pigs was Monika Miller, an associate media director. One day, Miller’s desk was taken away from her. To cope, she brought in a little red wagon, a classic Radio Flyer model. Each day, Miller would pile all of her documents, files, and possessions into her wagon, and begin to drag it up and down the halls, looking for the empty desk of someone out sick for the day. “Everyone thought it was so cute,” recalls Miller. “I’d be trudging down the hall, and they’d laugh and say, ‘Oh look, here she comes with that little red wagon.’ It was like a bad dream.”

In hindsight, perhaps the little red wagon should have been a tip-off that the cutting edge was still a little dull. Nonetheless, on the first workday of 1994—V-Day, as it would later be called—staffers arrived to behold their new home. A product of the combined efforts of architect Frank Gehry and the sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the building’s focal point was a four-story-high sculpture of a pair of field glasses. Once inside, employees were directed to rows of lockers; the initial impression was more reminiscent of high school than the college campus Chiat had described. In lieu of desks or cubbyholes, the tiny lockers would be the place for people to, as Chiat said, “put their dog pictures, or whatever.”

After unburdening all annoying reminders of an actual life, employees headed to the “concierge” window, where they signed out a PowerBook, and the “store,” where they were given a programmable portable phone. These tools were on loan only for the day; like members of a kibbutz, Chiat’s virtual citizens had little they could call their own—no speed-dial, no hard drive, and, most unsettling of all, no destination point in the wide-open plains of the office. “It was weird,” says Rabosky. “You just had no idea where you should go.”

Meanwhile, there was work to be done—at Chiat/Day, there was always work to be done, usually due yesterday. But who could work? Rabosky and his creative staff tried sitting out in the open, on the little couches. “You felt totally exposed,” he says. “There would be six conversations going on around you. I’d try to think, and I couldn’t.” Before long, there was a beeline for the only vestiges of a conventional workplace—the enclosed “project rooms.” In LA and, later, in the New York virtual office, these rooms had been designated for clients, or agency groups working for a particular client. But in the frantic attempts to escape from open space, nobody much cared who they were designated for. “The rooms would quickly fill up with people,” says freelance copywriter Paul Spencer, “and then they’d say to everyone else, ‘Get out—this is mine!’”

Chiat had anticipated this pathetic human reaction, and was ready. He declared that “nesting”—parking in any one place for more than a day—was strictly forbidden. In the “Chiat High” he’d created, he acted as both principal and hall monitor. Says Rabosky: “Jay would walk around, and he’d give you this look and say, ‘Did you sit here yesterday?’ And he’d make you get up and move.” (If Jay was disdainful of his employees’ attachment to spaces and the things that fill them, he came by it naturally. He was a minimalist with no use for personal items, family pictures, and the like. “He was totally devoid of sentiment,” says one coworker and friend. Chiat practically lived on airplanes, and his houses were pristine, except for the modern art he collected. “I would wander around parties at his house,” says the friend, “looking for some clue to what was important to him, and there was nothing.”)

It was a high crime to leave any stuff in the project rooms, or on the tables out on the open floor, or anywhere. But since the lockers were too small to hold much more than personal mementos, people began to lug armfuls of stuff—important papers, contracts, storyboards—as they slogged through the space. (Monika Miller, at least, still had her wagon; who was laughing now?) People started hiding their stuff in corners. And then they’d forget where they’d hidden it. “Every day,” says Miller, “there’d be these frantic email messages like, ‘Has anybody seen my binder? Does anyone know where my files are?’”

Almost immediately, “bread lines” started forming at the concierge desk. There weren’t enough phones and computers for the entire staff. Chiat had reckoned that a virtual office could get away with less equipment than people, because, the theory went, some people would always be out of the office. So he had leased a scaled-back equipment package. Then everyone blew his theory to hell by showing up at the concierge desk at the same time. “That was a serious glitch,” Chiat acknowledges now. Why not get more phones and equipment? “I couldn’t. There was a shortage or something.” (Kuperman says the agency was strapped for cash and simply couldn’t afford the equipment to go virtual.) Along with the jostling for seats in the project rooms there began the scuffling for equipment.

In the ensuing battles for turf and tools, staffers had to use any advantage at their disposal. Seniors pulled rank on juniors. Account people argued that they were the ones closest to the clients. Creative people, recalls Cooke, countered that “we make the fucking product of this agency, after all.” Then there was the x factor—the people who happened to live nearby the agency. They’d dart in at six in the morning, grab equipment, hide it somewhere, and maybe catch a couple more hours’ sleep before the virtual workday began. This didn’t sit well with Rabosky and others: “Damned if I was going to get up at six in the morning to get a phone,” he says. “I had to put my foot down. I told my assistant, ‘Go in there at six in the morning, get me a phone and computer, and hide it till I get there.’”

* * *

After sticking around in LA only briefly to harass the nesters, Jay Chiat left the scene of the chaos and turned his attention to New York. Here, he would unveil his virtual experiment’s real showpiece. Designed by the Italian architect Gaetano Pesce—who shared Chiat’s passion for egalitarian utopianism to such a degree that once, in a heated discussion of the building’s architecture, he screamed, “We must pierce the totalitarian façade!”—the New York office incorporated all of the impracticalities of LA, but added a singular visual aesthetic.

Near the entrance, the concierge desk had a huge, bright-red pair of lips painted around it. The floor—there were rumors Chiat spent $1 million on it—glowed in multicolored hues, and had hieroglyphs painted all over it. (For example, the sign for the men’s room was an illustration of a man peeing.) The wild colors, Pesce’s statement against the austerity of most workplaces, did not, he insists, undermine professionalism. “A surgeon who comes with a red shirt and green shoes is not necessarily a clown,” he explains.

Pesce had also designed “playful” chairs with springs at the feet; they wobbled, and sank too low, making the traffic girls’ miniskirts ride up. The conference room table was coated in a soft silicone resin that had a magnetic effect on paper. “It was hilarious to watch someone in the middle of an important presentation desperately trying to pick up a piece of paper off that desk,” recalls one sadistic staffer. As in LA, the workstations were out on the open floor, exposed.

The design magazines loved it. Such was the interest in this new “Disneyland,” as some staffers called it, that the agency starting hosting paid tours that drew admirers from as far away as Japan. Cameras were clicking nonstop. Chiat had succeeded in recapturing the spotlight. But he was also going a little mad with his own virtual fever, some thought. Cooke, who was trying desperately to remind people that this was an ad agency and not a carnival, would put pictures of new ads up on the wall. Chiat would ask for their removal. Any sightings of paper triggered email memos reminding employees that this was supposed to be a “paperless office,” with all files stored on the computer system. (In actuality, many of the creatives worked with storyboards, and the media contracts that brought in all the agency’s revenue were on paper.)

*  *  *

With Chiat playing office cop, there was no way to avoid scrutiny. “In a virtual office,” says Paul Spencer, “you can’t hide.”

But you could check out, and that’s eventually what about half the people did on any given day. Of course, that was part of the original idea. But there was an unanticipated problem: People didn’t do much work when they were gone. They felt like kids playing hooky, says associate creative director Shalom Auslander. “You’d say, ‘Hey let’s go to the Seaport,’ then you’d get there and say, ‘OK, now what do we do?’ Work was back at the office.” To department heads, the phrase “going virtual” took on an ominous meaning: It meant their staffers were done for the day.

Creative directors couldn’t find their copywriters. Calls to portable phones were answered by voicemail; by the time the calls were returned, the original inspiration had passed. Even if people were in the office, “the simple processes of finding a human being were gone,” Cooke says. “Where would an art director be? One wouldn’t know. I can remember coming back from a presentation and being unable to find my creative department for two days.” Auslander became exasperated with wandering round and round the 30,000-foot New York office, and came up with the “three-time around” rule: “If I walked around the entire office three times and still couldn’t find the person I was looking for, that was it,” he says. “At that point, I was going home, and if someone needed me they could find me on my virtual couch.”

After six months, a counterrevolution was in full swing in both offices. In LA, people took to using the trunks of their cars as file cabinets, going in and out to the parking lot, in and out. There had been discouragement against this, “but people just ignored it,” says one staffer. Rabosky took over an entire meeting room, declaring it “my office until somebody fires me.” Eric McClellan, the New York creative director, did the same back east. The LA office eventually started using sign-up sheets for assigned spaces. People stopped returning their portable phones and PowerBooks, stashing them in their lockers at night. Gradually, makeshift desks were put in place. Desktop computers began arriving in the LA office. The media kept gushing about Chiat’s virtual adventure, but by the end of year one, the whole “grand experiment” was already wobblier than a Gaetano Pesce chair.

By mid-1995, Jay Chiat had begun to realize that he’d miscalculated. “People panicked because they thought they couldn’t function,” he says. “Most of it, I felt, was an overreaction. But we should’ve been more prepared for it.” It didn’t much matter, though, because he had one final surprise in store: He announced that he’d sold the agency to a larger company, Omnicom, and cashed in his share. He was going virtual for good.

Omnicom decided to use the NewYork office as the place to merge its new acquisition with one of its own agencies, TBWA, known mostly for its Absolut vodka campaign. As the TBWApeople arrived, immediately bewildered by the bizarre environment, the Chiat veterans briefly rallied around their virtual experiment because it allowed them a moment of superiority. “We could laugh at them and say, ‘These assholes just don’t get it,’” says Marty Cooke.

But the moment didn’t last. Another floor was added to the office, and the idiosyncrasies of Pesce’s design were softened. The head of TBWA, Bill Tragos, a blustery traditionalist, declared he wanted his own executive suite, to the chagrin of Pesce and other egalitarians. Chiat had intended to stick around for a little while as a consultant, to work with Pesce on the expansion of the space, “but when I heard Bill was getting his own private office, I stopped being involved,” he says. He never went back to either office after that.

*  *  *

Soon after Chiat left, top executives at the company started planning the final assault on virtuality, drawing up sketches and interviewing architects. It took three years. When they finally moved out a few months ago—hollowing out the big binoculars in LA, and dismantling “Disneyland” in New York—there were no eulogies for the grand experiment. Except this from Auslander: “It was the best possible way a very bad idea could be done.”

The agency held a grand opening in December for its new, decidedly nonvirtual workspace in Playa del Rey. There, everybody has a desk and a hardwired phone. Some have screened-off workstations called “nests,” others are in cave-like enclosures called “cliff dwellings,” but everyone’s got personal space of some kind. The theme this time around—there are still clients to impress and reporters to hook—is “Advertising City.” The building is divided into client-based “neighborhoods.” There is an artificial park with ficus trees and benches, and a gleaming basketball court. It feels a little like Pleasantville. If the message sent to employees by the virtual office was, “Get your assignment and hit the road,” this one is saying something entirely different: Stay a while. Stay all night. Hell, you can live here. Which makes obvious sense in a business that is fueled by twentysomethings pulling late-nighters.

For a while it seemed that everyone in the ad business had caught Chiat’s raging fever: Fallon McElligott briefly experimented with portable offices; the MadDogs &Englishmen agency installed desks that attached to the ceiling and moved on tracks, like bumper cars. But in the end, the cubicle survived Chiat’s insurrection.

Still, it’s hard to say what the legacy of the virtual gambit is. For the people who lived through the experiment it may be a newfound appreciation for any kind of wall. Unlike the rest of us, they no longer harbor fantasies about working on the beach. And they’re more aware of the delicacy of the bonds that link a company’s workforce. Spencer learned one other thing: “Deep down, we’re all still cave dwellers,” he says.

Jay Chiat is unrepentant, convinced that his virtual experiment was never given a chance. He calls it “the only thing I ever did in business that I was satisfied with.”

“We all have been taught the corner office is a badge of success,” he says. “It’s difficult to change that.” He insists the logic of virtual was sound, but “my fault was not recognizing that emotional reasons were the reality.”

Asked if there was any lesson to be learned about the human need for privacy and personal space, he answers, “I believe in the privacy of the mind.”

Back in Los Angeles, at TBWA/Chiat/Day headquarters, virtual is already ancient history, and advertising is the star again. With its current “Think Different” campaign for Apple and its incredibly popular Taco Bell series, the agency is riding high. The man running the show now, laid-back creative guru Lee Clow, seems almost like the anti-Jay.

Among other things, he keeps a very large picture of his dogs in his office.

This article, written by Warren Berger, originally ran in WIRED magazine’s February 1999 issue.