Why the Mad Men era wasn’t all bad news for of­fice work­ers

The Guardian - Weekend - - Body & Mind Oliver Burkeman -

Hor­ri­fied amuse­ment was the main re­ac­tion last month when Pana­sonic an­nounced Wear Space, a pro­to­type prod­uct that can only re­ally be de­scribed as horse blin­ders for hu­mans. The wrap­around head-shield, which in­cludes noise-can­celling head­phones, is a sleek, con­tem­po­rary way to prevent dis­trac­tions from col­leagues in open-plan of­fices – a re­sult I’ve pre­vi­ously had to achieve by means of tow­er­ing piles of books, bushy plants and an ob­nox­ious per­son­al­ity. “Ever feel like you’re hav­ing too much fun in the of­fice?” the tech web­site The Verge asked sar­cas­ti­cally. “Like your boss just isn’t get­ting enough value out of your life?” But the dystopian thing here isn’t the blin­ders – it’s open-plan of­fices. As you surely know by now, they’re de­mo­ti­vat­ing, dis­tract­ing and linked to higher stress and blood pres­sure. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­search, there isn’t even an up­side in the form of more serendip­i­tous face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion; in fact, they make peo­ple talk less. Of course, they do save money, which is the real rea­son they ex­ist – though if they do that by mak­ing em­ploy­ees vastly less ef­fec­tive, you’ve got to won­der if it’s a vi­able long-term plan.

There are echoes of the open-plan fi­asco in an­other work­place phe­nom­e­non, high­lighted on the Study Hacks blog: the way many peo­ple spend a big chunk of each week do­ing tasks that are, to put it bluntly, be­low their pay grade. In the 1980s, the econ­o­mist Peter Sas­sone stud­ied the im­pact of com­puter sys­tems on Amer­i­can cor­po­ra­tions, and found that se­nior ex­ec­u­tives spent “sur­pris­ingly large per­cent­ages of their time” on things sup­port staff might pre­vi­ously have done. Be­cause com­put­ers make it eas­ier for man­agers to type their own memos, pre­pare graph­ics for pre­sen­ta­tions, sched­ule ap­point­ments and so on, sup­port roles got phased out, to save money. But money wasn’t saved: Sas­sone es­ti­mated that a typ­i­cal of­fice could save thou­sands of dol­lars per em­ployee per year by re­turn­ing to a clearer de­lin­eation be­tween the two kinds of job.

The rea­sons aren’t mys­te­ri­ous. Like it or not, the peo­ple who spear­head a bank’s in­vest­ment strat­egy or de­velop a soft­ware firm’s new prod­ucts get paid more than those who do data en­try or book venues for meet­ings. So if you make your in­vest­ment ex­pert do the data en­try, you’re pay­ing a huge premium for ad­min sup­port – so huge, Sas­sone’s find­ings sug­gest, that you’d save money by em­ploy­ing more sup­port staff. More­over, good sup­port staff have rel­e­vant skills for their jobs – un­like the bet­ter­paid se­nior man­ager who wastes 30 min­utes peer­ing in baf­fle­ment at the screen in an ef­fort to turn off au­to­matic bul­let points in Mi­crosoft Word.

Yes, the idea of an of­fice more clearly di­vided into ex­ec­u­tive and sup­port staff feels an­tidemo­cratic, old-fash­ioned, a bit Mad Men – but in re­al­ity, a re­turn to such de­lin­eations needn’t mean ex­ploit­ing lower-paid work­ers, or giv­ing the best­paid jobs dis­pro­por­tion­ately to men, or mak­ing it hard to get pro­moted from one layer to the other. Like­wise, open-plan of­fices feel more in tune with moder­nity: “ev­ery­one all muck­ing in to­gether” is a su­per­fi­cially ap­peal­ing idea. But that hardly means it’s for the best. Mark Zucker­berg fa­mously has an open-plan desk, like ev­ery­one at Face­book, and look how that’s work­ing out for hu­man­ity

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