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