Don’t mess with my mug. It means more than you think

Workplace change is often poorly explained and generally designed mostly to cut costs

Personal mugs  offer a measure of personal control and identity in largely anonymous open plan offices. Photograph: iStock

Personal mugs offer a measure of personal control and identity in largely anonymous open plan offices. Photograph: iStock

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Every few weeks, someone at the Financial Times sends an email to the entire newsroom asking if anyone has seen a much-loved missing mug.

Last month it was a purple one with a picture of Homer Simpson’s favourite Duff beer on the side. Before that, there was one with a lot of cat pictures, another with photos of a child and one with a map of the solar system that, according to its owner, had “immeasurable scientific and sentimental value”.

This usually leads to the sudden reappearance of the mug and a bit of banter about its loss.

“While I deeply regret the sad theft of your mug and hope that the thief is quickly found, I’m afraid I can’t help but see this as a rebuke to the slogan’s naive optimism,” wrote a colleague to the person whose lost mug bore the motto, “Proceed as if success is inevitable”.

I find all this a cheering reminder of the pleasant people I work with. But last week, something happened to make me think again about those missing mugs and what they mean to their owners.

It began when word spread that the people fitting out the FT’s swanky new office across the river in the paper’s former home of Bracken House thought it should be binless. Instead of recycling stations scattered around the office, there would be just one or two big bins at the end of each floor.

I am not sure how this will go. Staff at one London company that went binless now stuff rubbish in their drawers or toss it on the floor by their desks. At another, the idea was swiftly binned itself in the face of a threatened mutiny.

This may sound odd, considering all the arguments for binlessness. Getting off one’s bottom to dump rubbish is good for your health. You can bump into other people and swap useful information. It can also be greener, as long as the big bins are used for recycling, because it helps stop people tossing apple cores into a personal bin with other stuff that should be recycled separately.

The trouble is, people like having their own bins for many of the same reasons they like their own mug. It is far more convenient and it offers a measure of personal control and identity that can feel threatened in even the most benevolent modern office.

I speak as a pathetic bin renegade. When our personal bins disappeared overnight, I began using an empty cardboard box instead. I also have a big white mug with a pleasing brown tea stain I never clean, in the hope it deters would-be borrowers.

Yet I do not remember anyone needing to worry about their bins, let alone their mugs, when I first started work. Things have clearly changed.

A London office design veteran I came across the other day, Dan Callegari from the Area agency, told me that about 60 per cent of his clients were now opting for binless or paperless offices. Some 70 per cent were adopting some form of shared working space and at least 50 per cent were open to the idea of banning eating at the desk.

He conceded that things did not always go smoothly. “It’s always difficult to get 100 per cent of people on a journey,” he said, adding this underlined the importance of explaining the benefits of change.

I suspect this might be easier if companies were more open about one chief advantage of many office trends today: cost savings.

Finding recent figures on this is not easy. The UK environment department calculated more than a decade ago that replacing personal bins at civil servants’ desks with central recycling stations would save nearly £5,000 a year because cleaners would spend 13 hours less each week emptying individual bins, putting in new liners and so on. Savings have doubtless ballooned since then.

As office rents soar, there is an obvious appeal to having one or two big bins per floor instead of a load of recycling spots or personal bins cluttering up space.

The same goes for whisking away coat-stands, cabinets or under-used desks.

I like to think resistance is not futile. Meanwhile, I am sticking with my cardboard box bin, hiding my mug before I go home each night and generally proceeding as if success is, if not inevitable, then at least possible. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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