National News

The rise of the open-plan office

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-04-01 08:02

Try to get one simple task at work done, say, updating a line of text on a website. The next thing you know, you're running an anti-virus check for malware and re-installing system software. 

Developers have a name for when one tiny task sets off an avalanche of work, "yak shaving." The idea comes from a "Ren and Stimpy" episode: 

"You'll look up and it'll be five o'clock and you'll have chased down all the minutia but you wouldn't have actually gotten any work done," says Jonathan Hirschman, CEO of PCB:NG, a firm that does electronic assembly for hardware entrepreneurs. 

Small tasks which seem to transform magically into tidal waves of work, says Hirschman, are why he can't work from home, he's too easily distracted. Like the time he was indulging in a favorite morning routine, reading tech journals before leaving the house. 

"Before I knew it I was outlining a schematic and had to stop myself and say, 'Wait a minute, you're not going to create a new piece of electronics. You're going to go into the office and get your work done.'" 

Still Hirschman notes, his current office, a rented desk in the open-plan section of a co-working space, is also problematic. 

"What's the quote? Hell is other people," he says. 

Jonathan Hirschman is not a fan of his open plan co-working office. Hell, he says, is other people.

Sally Herships

But encouraging workers to cozy up to each other is what's hot right now in the world of office design, it's all about the open plan. 

Facebook is planning to put thousands of its workers into one mile-long room, and Samsung is building a new headquarters which includes floors of outdoor spaces, where it's hoping employees from different departments and levels will mingle.

GlaxoSmithKline just paid, it won’t say how many hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions, to design a new 200,000 square foot glass building in Philadelphia which is entirely open-plan. 

The company is so excited, it made a video about it.

"It’s a whole new way of working," says one featured worker's voice. "I’ll admit it," continues another, "at first I was nervous about leaving my old office and cubicle setup. But I love working in the open environment.” 

So are open plan offices the holy grail of office design? Or, are they what Jonathan Hirschman describes as "a kind of purgatory for workers?" Keep your head down long enough and maybe, just maybe, you'll make it to an office of your own with a door that closes. 

GlaxoSmithKline's new building looks and feels a little like a hotel. There’s a coffee shop on the ground floor and a spiral staircase rises out of a huge atrium, whichever way you look you see windows and light. 

But even though the five-floor building holds over a thousand employees, there are no offices, at least not the kind we're used to. 

This is the new non-office office, there are no offices in the building — at least, there are no assigned seats. At GlaxoSmithKline, groups get put in "neighborhoods": Every morning you get your laptop, post-it notes and assorted chargers out of your locker, and decide where you'd like to sit for the day. Every evening, your belongings get stowed away again. GSK has a clean desk policy in place — no detritus please. 

Why not just let workers stick to the comfort of their own desks? 

"Because we’re trying to keep movement in the environment," says Ray Milora, head of design and change management at the company, "we’re trying to keep people moving around." 

Milora notes there are options for workers who need some alone time. There are special chairs that look like they've escaped from "Alice in Wonderland," with large arms and headrests meant to protect their occupants from sights and sounds, are strategically placed throughout the building. There are also quiet rooms, though they have time limits to prevent employees from moving in permanently. 

The big idea, says Milora, is to encourage workers to talk to colleagues they might otherwise never interact with. And at GSK, the plan seems to be working.

Milora says attendance at the company has gone up dramatically. At GSK's old building, which he describes as a traditional American 1980s space, "low ceiling, neon lights everywhere," and he continued, "beige, everything beige," attendance was at 40 percent, but in the new space, it's gone up to "well over 90 percent here." 

Though the new space is beautiful and open, workers are bathed in lots of natural light, and the staircase promotes exercise — the elevators are located in non-encouraging spots — some employees at GSK wear headphones. And that, says Nikil Saval, author of "Cubed, a Secret History of the Workplace," is the "open scandal of the open-plan office trend." 

While open plan offices can be conducive to collaboration, Saval notes that they can also be distracting.

"They're supposed to induce these serendipitous encounters where people run into each other and burst into this flame of innovation and disruption," but Saval says, "that's not what you're doing all the time." 

Besides, says Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a firm which uses Bluetooth and microphones to track worker interactions, happiness and productivity, open plan or office with doors, encouraging employee interaction can be hard to get right. 

Bicycle helmet designer Danielle Baskin prefers to customize her own work space.

Sally Herships

"The amount you talk to other people is never predictive of how productive or happy you are," he says. It's not how much you talk to your co-workers, says Waber, but instead "it's the pattern of communication — do I talk to a lot of people who know each other or do I talk to people in different groups?" 

Waber tells a story about a large manufacturing company whose salespeople sat in cubicles. 

"The company said, 'You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to spend millions of dollars, we’re going to build out a beautiful new open-plan office setting, lots of daylight, it’s going to be great — fantastic.'" 

And they did that, but it didn’t work. Sorry cube-haters — the cubicles, says Waber, were actually better. 

In the old setup, the sales team talked to each other and consequentially learned how to sell more. When the office went open-plan, they also talked more — but to other co-workers, outside of the sales team, instead. 

The problem today, says Waber, is instead of thinking about what specific employees needs are, some companies are too focused on trying to be trendy. 

Of the office-hip, open-plan plan, "isn't it ironic — I started researching these in 1976," says Alan Hedge, a Professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University. "And here we are nearly forty years later — and it's come back into fashion," he says. 

The open-plan office, according to Hedge, is a German idea from the middle of the last century: "Bürolandschaft." "Büro which is the German for office and landschaft which is landscape." 

The original open-plan offices were a flop, says Hedge. Workers were unhappy with the noise and lack of privacy, and today, when headphones — out of necessity — have become the new office door, the same concerns exist. Office design, says Hedge, is like fashion. 

"The latest trend is to say, 'let's get rid of cubicles, let's get rid of private offices, let's create these vast open spaces and life will be wonderful.' Well it won’t," he says. 

When it comes to office design, uniformity can equal failure. 

"Everybody gets the same chair, everybody gets the same desk, everybody gets the same space. That's the kiss of death." 

As is another hot office design trend: The standing desk. "The human body is designed to move," says Hedge, "but not all the time. It is designed to sit, but not all the time. It's designed to stand, but not all the time." 

Instead, says Hedge, workers should find an optimal mix. He offers the following formula: Sit for twenty minutes, stand for eight and move for two. At the very least, your lower back will feel more comfortable. And if you're a worker who's unhappy in his or her office space, there's always another trend to fall back on — grabbing your laptop and heading to the nearest coffee shop.

Pew: 'Smartphone-Dependents' Often Have No Backup Plan For Web Access

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 07:58

People who rely most on their smartphones to get online, often deal more frequently with service interruptions, because of financial hardship and data caps.

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Thailand Lifts Martial Law, But Critics Say Its Replacement Is Worse

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 07:31

The announcement to lift martial law goes into effect immediately. The new law, Article 44, gives coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha sweeping powers over the Thai government.

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Scary Times For California Farmers As Snowpack Hits Record Lows

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 06:28

Much of the state depends on that snow for its water. In the Central Valley, the nation's most productive farming region, that means another year of fallowed fields and emergency water measures.

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Patton Oswalt Tweets In Defense Of Comedy — And Trevor Noah

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 06:26

South African comedian Trevor Noah has been criticized for some tweets that critics say are sexist and anti-Semitic. Among his supporters is Oswalt, who took to Twitter to make his point.

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To Avoid Surprise Insurance Bills, Tell Exchange Plan When You Move

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 06:09

Consumers can face unexpected costs if they don't cancel their insurance plan before they relocate to another state.

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Indiana Law: Sorting Fact From Fiction From Politics

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 05:36

The culture wars are always percolating beneath the surface in presidential politics. And as is often the case in controversies, the facts have become muddled and conflated.

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson Weighs State's Religious Freedom Bill

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 05:30

Lawmakers passed the bill Tuesday. A similar Indiana law sparked a backlash. Critics say it allows businesses to refuse services to gays and lesbians. Supporters say it bolsters religious freedom.

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Musician Joni Mitchell Is 'Awake And In Good Spirits' In Intensive Care

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 05:06

After being found unconscious in her home Tuesday afternoon, folk music icon Joni Mitchell has been hospitalized in Los Angeles.

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World's Oldest Person Dies At Age 117

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 04:28

She was born in 1898. And now comes word that Japan's Misao Okawa has died at age 117. She had been the world's oldest person since 2013, according to Guinness World Records.

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Iran Nuclear Talks: Varied Signs Of Agreement On An Agreement

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 03:43

Diplomats from the seven countries involved are sending mixed signals, one day after the deadline lapsed for reaching a deal on Iran's nuclear program.

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PODCAST: Reverse brain drain in Dayton Ohio

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-04-01 03:00

The voting is done. Concessions have been made. And a 2-month transition of power in Nigeria is underway. More on that. Plus, all it what you will. Brain drain. Population Death spiral. One of the harsh realities facing many of america's former industrial cities is the loss of residents. But one place in Ohio may be on its way to bucking that trend. 

CEOS Of Germanwings, Lufthansa Visit Crash Site

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 03:00

Speaking to reporters, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr did not respond to questions about the co-pilot's medical history.

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Restaurant raises prices and pay, and ends tipping

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-04-01 02:00

In the national debate about the minimum wage, the city of Seattle is taking the lead. Effective April 1, minimum-wage workers there get a raise, thanks to an ordinance passed last spring. Workers at big companies get $11 an hour, with the minimum wage stair-stepping up to $15 for all workers over the next few years.

However, one local restaurant is jumping to that top rate right away. It’s also raising prices—and getting rid of tipping. 

Ivar’s Salmon House, an iconic room on Seattle’s waterfront, starts using brand new menus on April 1, reflecting a 21 percent price hike across the board. The money will go to raise base wages for the whole staff, including kitchen workers who haven’t gotten a share of tips in the past.

Management tinkered for months with a formula that would fund those "back-of-the-house" raises, while also protecting servers from taking a hit when tips went away.

"We were very nervous when we put it all together, to actually give it to employees and say this is what we’re thinking about doing," says Bob Donegan, the company's president.

He says staff gave the plan a standing ovation—but some people have come up to him since to say they’re nervous.

"We’re all nervous," Donegan says. "We don’t know how customers are going to react to this. We don’t know how staff will react to this."

The move essentially changes the restaurant’s business model.

Others may follow suit, says Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association. 

"Everyone’s talking about it," he says. "It is the conversation among restaurants in Seattle."

The new model may spread beyond Seattle, as other cities adopt higher minimum wage laws, says William Lester, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina who studies minimum-wage policy.

"I wouldn't be surprised if that were to become more common, as more cities push the labor standards higher," he says.  

The FCC prepares for legal challenges to net neutrality

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-04-01 02:00

When the  Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued new rules on net neutrality earlier this year, it expected legal challenges to follow soon. Chairman Tom Wheeler even said as much back in November, according to The Hill: “The big dogs are going to sue regardless of what comes out.”

Well, the lawsuits have begun. In the last few weeks, the FCC was sued separately by a trade group and Texas-based internet provider, Alamo Broadband Inc. The group, United Telecom Association, represents major companies including Verizon and AT&T.

Both claim the government is overstepping its authority with the FCC rules, and seek to overturn them.

“What they are arguing is that the FCC rules apply ‘onerous restrictions’ on them and should be waived,” says Brian Fung, a technology reporter at The Washington Post. “This is the first opportunity by internet providers to challenge FCC rules and they are taking it.”

So what happens next? For one, Fung  says, the rules will only go into effect about two months after they are published in the Federal Register, where people will have access to the actual text of the legislation. But they haven’t been published yet.

“But already the FCC is working to respond to the lawsuits and said that they were going to basically move to have the cases thrown out,” says Fung.

There’s a chance that might happen because a lawsuit against the FCC by Verizon in 2010 was dismissed on grounds that the rules it was challenging hadn’t been published yet.   

Meanwhile, Congress is attempting to pass bipartisan legislation that would repeal the net neutrality rules. The goal would be to replace them with regulations, which, according to Fung, would “enshrine some of the same principles into law,” except the FCC would not be involved.  

Given President Barack Obama’s support for the FCC’s new rules, he is likely to veto such a bill, added Fung.

“That’s why getting democratic support for a bill is going to be so important,” he says.  

 

Dayton bucks a population decline

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-04-01 02:00

Brain drain. Population Death Spiral. Whatever you call it, one of the harsh realities facing many of the nation’s former industrial cities is the loss of its residents.

But at least one rust-belt town may be on its way to bucking that trend. After shrinking by 100,000 people in the past half-century, Dayton, Ohio has recently witnessed a small growth spurt. According to the most recent numbers, Dayton’s population is 143,355 and (the city hopes!) counting.

One of the forces behind Dayton’s recent growth is evident when you drive down the streets of Old North Dayton. A haven for eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century, the neighborhood has since seen many years of decline. It's easy to spot the boarded up house, the abandoned lots and the empty store fronts that have come to define so many former-industrial cities. But in the eyes of Adil Baguirov, who moved to Dayton a few years ago, those sights are all backdrop to the real story. 

He points at a freshly painted house, white with bright red trim. And then a block away, another, painted bright yellow. And down the street from that, there’s another house with a fresh coat of blue paint.

“Most of the houses that are newly painted or have a white fence next to them or have an orchard are owned by Ahiska Turks,” he tells me. “Like every fourth house is owned by an Ahiska Turk.”

Ahiska Turks are a group of ethnic Turks from the former Soviet republic of Georgia with a long history of displacement. In recent years, many have been granted refugee status by the U.S. government. Baguirov, who is not Ahiska himself but comes from nearby Azerbaijan, has emerged as a leader in Dayton’s burgeoning Turkish American community and was recently elected to the Dayton school board. He says the first Ahiskas came to Dayton almost by accident, in 2006, when six families were placed in Dayton by the U.S. State Department. 

“Of course every refugee thinks they're going to be sent to Hollywood or New York,” Baguirov says. “They're like Dayton? Where is that?”

But then those six families decided this Dayton place wasn’t so bad. And they started telling their friends.

“Life is cheaper here,” says Ali Shakhmandarov, who was originally placed in Salt Lake City but moved to Dayton a few years ago. The usually discouraging parts of Dayton—urban blight, abandoned houses, a dismal real estate market—were part of the appeal. He says he kept hearing stories of friends buying homes for a few thousand dollars.

“Since we were not rich,” says Shakhmandarov, “We can buy those thousand dollar houses.”

Now, some 2000 Ahiska Turks call Dayton home.

Compared to other cities, Dayton still has very few foreign-born residents, according to Tim Riordan, who recently retired as City Manager. Inspired by research that showed immigrants have disproportionately high rates of entrepreneurship compared to their native-born counterparts, in 2010 Riordan helped start a city initiative, called Welcome Dayton, to make the city more friendly to immigrants.

“What we need to do is create a culture that says we're welcoming to immigrants. Come and try to do your thing here,” he says. “There's a couple of small companies you might have heard of—Yahoo, Intel, eBay, Google—that were created by immigrants.” Riordan thinks those stories should be models for Dayton.

No multibillion dollar Dayton-based tech companies have emerged from the initiative, yet. But there are smaller stories of success.

Several Turkish immigrants have recently started long-haul trucking companies in Dayton—companies that need people to drive the trucks, to dispatch them, to repair them.

Adil Baguirov named his trucking company American Power, “because we’re able to realize dreams,” he says. There is a giant sign in front of his warehouse with the words: HIRING!

Calls for action against mental health discrimination

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-04-01 02:00

A new report out today from the National Alliance for Mental Illness says the health insurance industry discriminates against the mentally ill. That’s in spite of a 2008 federal law, requiring insurers to provide the same level of coverage for the mentally ill. And the affordable healthcare act hasn’t helped either.

One big issue the report cites is a shortage of providers.

“When people are seeking mental health care they may have a real problem finding it,” says Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for NAMI. And even if patients are able to find psychiatrists they may not be able to afford treatment.

“People are being denied requests for mental health care at levels more than twice those of denials for physical health care,” he says.

Honbeg notes that the criteria for how insurers decide what gets covered and what doesn’t isn’t published—One of the many issues he says that needs to be addressed.

The Opposite Of The Dean's List

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 01:01

The Education Department says it's keeping a close eye on 556 colleges and universities that do a poor job of complying with federal regulations and handling federal financial aid.

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The Urban Neighborhood Wal-Mart: A Blessing Or A Curse?

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 01:01

The nation's largest retailer is known for sprawling suburban and rural stores. But now Wal-Mart is moving into city centers — sometimes despite strong local opposition.

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Nigeria's New President: From Military Ruler To 'Newborn Democrat'

NPR News - Wed, 2015-04-01 01:01

For the first time, an opposition challenger has defeated a sitting president at the ballot box. A peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another would be another first for Nigeria.

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