Open office plans are the practical corporate answer to socialism. Or communism. Something that implies that everyone is equal and important. And it was (apparently) invented by architects hoping to make the world a better place.

Only, um, it’s not true that everyone is equal or important. I’m not quite sure why we tend to take that fact with such offence.

We Are Not All Created Equal

People are born rich, beautiful, talented, poor, ugly, and not talented. Some people get good teeth.

Then, we are treated unfairly* by circumstance: some people get good parents, some get bad parents, good teachers, bad teachers, evil aunts, wicked stepmothers, wonderful grannies, inspiring grandfathers, competitive older cousins, lucky breaks, divorces, deaths, freak accidents and holidays in the Carribean.
*And by “unfairly” – I mean that it can swing in a positive direction as well.

There is nothing equal or “fair” about the dealing of the cards. So why be so concerned with it?

The way I like to think of it is:

  • We have equal intrinsic value as human beings (because being a human is an extraordinary defiance of improbabilities – I mean, the number of unlikely events that had to happen in exact order for us to be us and to be us in this moment and honestly this is all getting too existential for me already… I think you get my point).
  • We surely have vastly different extrinsic values to society (although, again, in the game of probabilities – you never know who might be unwittingly influencing the next Mahatma Gandhi, and who is unknowingly rearing an Antichrist – so this is a moot one).
  • But one thing I am sure of: we definitely have different relative values in terms of the contributions we make to a business.

The leader, the worker bee, the complainer, the organiser. We have different roles – so I cannot understand why we want to pretend that it is not so when it comes to divvying up the office space.

The List of Reasons for Becoming Open Plan

As carefully crafted into glossed company memos in order to obtain “employee buy-in”:

  1. Teamwork” – We’re all in this together, so let’s socialise and be as one. Or something.
  2. Joint innovation” – Yes, let us be as one. Wait, did I say that already?
  3. Quick problem-solving sessions” – If I have a problem, I can interrupt you without having to knock on your door or charge through your secretary – I can just stroll up and stand awkwardly behind your chair until you notice me.
  4. Faster feedback” – Walking to your office is so much slower than shouting across the floor. 

The Open Office Plan: In Practice

Alright, I really must focus on this report that’s due by midd…

Interrupted: that manager wants to grab coffee and have a quick moan about his wife. Because we’re buddies. It’s cool – we’re quickly problem-solving.

Sherbet I’m running late, I really need t…

Interrupted: look at that one over there arriving 34 minutes after eight. The liberties being taken! Must glare at her.

Okay, I reall…

Interrupted: phonecall from the guy three desks over. Wants to know if I’ve had coffee yet. I have had, yes. But I’m due for a second cup actually, because I really need to concentrate. Return and sit down.

Um, yes…

Interrupted: guy next to me gets a phonecall, but it’s a wrong number.

Damn, it’s already 10!! I’ve only got two hou…

Interrupted: guy next to me gets another phonecall. It’s his girlfriend. Oh FFS, the coochy-coo talk. You’re in PUBLIC, guy.

Bloody time-wasters, can you believe these people?

Interrupted: they’re having an argument about who is going to put the phone down first.

Unbelievable. I mean really…

At midday, when the report is due: I’m sure they put a time buffer in. I’ll just call and say that my email service isn’t working, and that I’m taking the lap top to IT. That’ll give me until tomorrow, at least. 

Why Open Plan is a bit of a fail

The summary list:

  1. It’s impossible to focus: life in an open-plan office is one constant distraction, even if you’re wearing headphones.
  2. According to some medical studies (I know – there are always medical studies), 90% of open office employees had higher stress blood pressure levels (the same thing?) than their office-door-closed counterparts.
  3. And those open offices had higher levels of conflict and staff turnover.
  4. Frankly, “feedback” in a public setting may be more frequent, but it’s never going to be more accurate than feedback given behind closed doors.
  5. Those team bonds that are being built by having everyone within earshot? They’re going to be superficial because, well, everyone is within earshot. So I’m going to be more concerned with what I’m saying, how I’m phrasing it, and who can hear me – rather than being focused and authentic with the person that I’m actually trying to talk to. And one ends up being accused of shallowness and superficiality. Well yes exactly.
  6. The boss in the office automatically gets more respect than the boss in the cubicle next to you. Mainly because you don’t get to listen in on the private phonecalls and the being-shouted-at-by-his-boss-and-or-the-client.

To be honest, I think we all know why the architects managed to persuade the business community to “make the world a better place”. Fewer offices = more employees per square metre = lower rental costs. Also, fewer secretaries.

And maybe, in the grand economic scale of it all, that is a better trade-off.


I like offices.