Monday, August 20, 2018

The tent in the office

A few weeks ago, I was in Richmond, VA chatting with my Uber driver on the drive back to the airport. She asked where I was from, and upon hearing SF she brought up the latest news from our city that had apparently made it across the country—the ban on plastic straws. 

Every ban has two sides, and the interesting thing about this ban is who is speaking up against it most compellingly. Here it's not a big company that makes plastic straws, it's people with disabilities who need straws in order to consume liquids. This use case was not in my awareness before I saw it in the news, and it likely wasn't for most people who supported the ban. My surprise reminded me of how people react when I talk about my appreciation for the tent in the office.

If you walk into the Instabase office, one of the first things you'll notice is the tent pitched in a walled-off corner. When one of my friends came to interview, he had already heard about it from a VC. The tent blends into the fabric of the office when you see it every day. I have lost my beginner’s eyes, so I observe the reactions of visitors. Some are repulsed; others see it as a sign of a committed team. Yes, it's occasionally used for crashing, and that is the most obvious meaning and utility of the tent. That’s not why I use it or love that we have it. 

On a Wednesday morning a few months ago, I was scheduled to give an onsite interview. I realized shortly after I woke up I was probably not going to make it. My period had started, which meant in a few hours I was likely to have bad cramps. I pinged the two other people who were available to cover, and luckily one of them was awake and free.

Based on talking to friends, I'm guessing my pain is on the higher end of the spectrum. Painkillers tend to reduce but not get the pain down to a level where I can be productive, and based on experience my cramps continue until I either take a nap or fake it by lying down extremely still for one to two hours. The good thing is there’s a straightforward solution. I just need a spot to lie down. In the age of open offices, though, this can be surprisingly tough.

At the start of my career, I spent four years at big companies where my periods led me to discover how much of a privacy desert an open office is. At my first job (at a company I overwhelmingly feel grateful to), there were nap rooms, not to mention nursing mothers’ rooms, but they were perpetually occupied—demand exceeded supply. When I lived close by in Menlo Park, I would cab or Uber home. Later I moved to SF, and that ride became a more painful and expensive proposition, so I stuck to the office. I would walk a few buildings over from where I worked so people wouldn’t recognize me, and lie on a couch in a small living area between two clusters of desks. It was exposed, next to a busy walkway. I was a bit embarrassed, but it was the best option I found.

I became curious how other women were dealing and posted in an internal women's group to ask. I saw a range of responses, from sympathy from people who experience less discomfort, to stories from other women who sought spaces to rest. One woman said she had trouble finding places to lie down during her pregnancy, so she would go to the parking lot and lie down in the trunk of her SUV.

As much as it's judged and possibly ridiculed, the tent at the office is the most available space I've encountered in my working life when I need to lie down. It's private, yet not entirely secluded, so I can hear what's going on in the rest of the room and even respond. From an engineering/product standpoint—how well it solves the problem, cost, mobility, ease of deployment—a tent is a great solution for our tiny but fast-growing startup.

The tent solves one of the two uncomfortable parts of my experience with period pain—the space to rest. The other part is talking about it when it throws randomness into my schedule. It has always been a weird topic to bring up to my managers, especially as only one of the ten I’ve had has been a woman. But I recognize it’s primarily weird because it’s not usual; I bet there was a time when being a nursing mother was weird to talk about, but nowadays mothers' rooms seem a normal fixture of offices. 

The main reason I wanted to write this post is, well, the plastic straw business reminded me about it. The tent is my plastic straw. In the bigger picture, this is one issue that highlights to me what it means to have and support diversity in the workplace. I have nothing to add to the broad strokes in the dialogue about diversity, but I can help fill in the details of what that concretely means in the office. It's in the mundane details and crevasses of everyday working life that we all can shed more light. 

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