The Of­fice

Fancy a snif­fling, squab­bling, un­pro­duc­tive work­force? Have we got an open plan for you! Evan Wil­liams shares his bean­bag – and his take on desks with­out borders.

Qantas - - Contents - il­lus­tra­tion by STEVEN MOORE

Weigh­ing the pros and cons of open-plan workspaces

like many things in life – DIY ren­o­va­tions, com­mu­nism, stand­ing desks – the open-plan of­fice sounds great in the­ory. Break down the phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers be­tween em­ploy­ees and you also break down the bar­ri­ers to col­lab­o­ra­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity. The re­al­ity, of course, is very dif­fer­ent. This type of work­place has the high­est level of em­ployee dis­sat­is­fac­tion, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 study by The Univer­sity of Sydney. How can that be?

To start with, they make us sick. Work­ers in open-plan of­fices are at “sig­nif­i­cant ex­cess risk” of tak­ing short-term sick leave, a 2013 Stock­holm Univer­sity study sug­gests. And what about that col­lab­o­ra­tion? Co-worker friend­ships are “of the low­est qual­ity in hot-de­sk­ing and open-plan ar­range­ments”, says Dr Rachel Mor­ri­son, a se­nior lec­turer at Auck­land Univer­sity of Technology’s Busi­ness School. But at least you get a boost in pro­duc­tiv­ity, right? Wrong. The Univer­sity of Sydney re­search also found that the dis­ad­van­tages of dis­trac­tion are greater than the ben­e­fits of in­ter­ac­tion.

None of this is news to long-suf­fer­ing em­ploy­ees in open-plan of­fices. As some­one in the cre­ative sec­tor, I’ve never been al­lowed to have my own of­fice; in­stead, I’ve been con­fined to con­verted ware­house spa­ces. Man­agers think I’ll be at my most pro­duc­tive work­ing from a shared bean­bag or par­tak­ing in a game of ping-pong. Of course, it’s hard to be pro­duc­tive when the col­league shar­ing your bean­bag re­gales you with un­in­vited TED Talks about the dream they had last night.

But, at least for the fore­see­able fu­ture, we’ll con­tinue to work with­out borders. So it’s up to em­ploy­ees to make it vi­able.

Over the years, many have adapted to this openly hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. Like the or­ange oak­leaf but­ter­fly, which cam­ou­flages it­self as a leaf to con­fuse preda­tors, we have evolved ear­phones to ward off chatty col­leagues. And for the big­ger preda­tors in man­age­ment, there are noise-can­celling head­phones.

A source who wishes to re­main anony­mous told me that a co-worker set up Christ­mas lights on his desk. If they were green, you could talk to him; red meant stay away. When an of­fice lay­out re­duces so­cial in­ter­ac­tion to light­ing cues, it might be worth re­think­ing it al­to­gether.

Though I’m cyn­i­cal, I have found one com­pany that does ben­e­fit from the open­plan rev­o­lu­tion. It has been a boon for Sound­mask, an Aus­tralian busi­ness that spe­cialises in solv­ing noise prob­lems. “Ar­chi­tects do not de­sign with their ears,” Sound­mask’s gen­eral man­ager, Me­gan Short, tells me, not­ing that on-trend in­te­ri­ors – pol­ished floor­boards, lots of glass par­ti­tions – are a “night­mare for acous­tics”. In­stalling high-tech sound gen­er­a­tors helps em­ploy­ees hear their own thoughts rather than their col­leagues’ mus­ings on last night’s Game of Thrones.

Au­dio wiz­ardry aside, there may be one other way to save the open-plan of­fice. It seems rad­i­cal but hear me out. In­stead of many work­ers shar­ing one big of­fice, what if em­ploy­ees got their own, sep­a­rate, small of­fices? I sound crazy, I know, but just lis­ten.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­cov­ered ev­i­dence that in the dis­tant past (1964 to 2000), an­cient struc­tures called “cu­bi­cles” ex­isted. They were in­vented be­cause work­ers had no pri­vacy in their open-plan of­fices. Be­fore cu­bi­cles, ac­cord­ing to Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, “The typ­i­cal open-plan of­fice of the first half of the 20th cen­tury con­tained long rows of desks oc­cu­pied by clerks.” Sound fa­mil­iar?

So there may be a way to re­deem the open-plan of­fice, af­ter all: wait for his­tory to re­peat it­self. In the mean­time, per­haps buy some of those Christ­mas lights.

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