Alone in a Crowd:

CitySearch, the Pasadena-based creator of online community guides, aims to be a trendsetter on the World Wide Web. But these days the company is finding itself on the cutting edge of office etiquette.

The sales team in the company’s Morrisville, N.C., office--which produces the site that serves the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area--discovered that “many hours are consumed by dealing with distractions in the office,” according to a newly disclosed internal e-mail message. The solution: red sashes that workers can don when they want to be left alone.

“These sashes are meant to signal to the rest of us that that person is trying to stay focused,” the e-mail explained. “Sash wearers would very much appreciate it if you would refrain from disturbing them. . . . If you would like to try a sash, you may borrow one from the coat rack in front of the demo room. This experiment is not a joke.”

The red sash policy was covered in the September issue of Harper’s magazine, which printed a copy of the memo.


Traci Fleming, general manager for the North Carolina CitySearch office, said the sashes have served their intended purpose since they were introduced in February. “When [the wearers] put on a sash, they instantly create a virtual office,” she said.

CitySearch’s chief executive, Charles Conn, said the need for some kind of universal do-not-disturb signal is a byproduct of the laid-back corporate culture in the company’s offices, which are spread across North America and Australia.

“Nobody has an office in CitySearch, including me,” Conn said. Although open spaces promote quick decision-making, “open communication can sometimes be horribly distracting when you’re trying to work on a deadline.”

Besides, in CitySearch’s field offices, “everyone is in their mid-20s and it’s a raucous kind of environment,” Conn said.

The idea behind the sash policy certainly predates CitySearch’s cutting-edge industry. Conn said there was a similar policy when he worked at the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Co.: “We had a cone we used to wear on our heads. It was called the Cone of Silence.”