DALE McFEATTERS: Open-plan offices for closed minds
October 13, 2013 1:40 AM

Trying to stave off the moment when I would have to do some actual work, I riffled through a stack of business magazines. It was sort of work — there were ads for office equipment, desks, ergonomic chairs and sleek little machines that through the miracle of technology take work you should be doing and dump it on someone else. Who says modern electronic wizardry is overrated? With the simple click of a mouse, my problem becomes your problem.

Much of this literature was dedicated to the resurrection of the “open-plan” office, the idea being that without walls and partitions employees will interact with each other and the resulting interplay of freewheeling brainstorming will produce ideas that will make the company a bundle of money. Synergy, you know.

Plus, the theory is that workers in plain sight will keep busy, or pretend to be, and the plainly visible computer screens will discourage them from stalking Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton.

However, the corporate-observing website inc.com has a more direct explanation: “The business case for open-plan offices is simple. They’re cheaper. Without walls you can stuff more people into less space, saving on real-estate costs.”

Somehow I doubt this idea originated in a serendipitous gathering of like-minded workers: “Say, I have an idea. Let’s all listen to each other’s phone calls.” Indeed, the National Security Agency’s plan to vacuum up every phone call in the country may have originated in an open-plan office.

The cube farm is being replaced in some businesses by freestyle seating — first come, first served — what the rock-concert promoters call “festival seating.” The employee plugs in his laptop at a suitable desk and goes right to work, synergistically interacting with his new colleagues.

My first real job was in an open-plan office, except it was called a newspaper city room. Experts in modern open-plan offices believe a certain minimum noise level is necessary for efficiency lest the new quarters become too morguelike.

Too little noise was not a problem in my first workplace. The linoleum floors and inadequate acoustic tiles amplified the sound of the mechanical typewriters, the teletype machines and the permanent and profane seminar on the local sports scene. The city editor spent his day standing, with one foot on his desk, and communicated by shouting at people. The switchboard operator did the same, except she was seated.

In a new job in another office in another city, I wound up in a junior-management position, and one of my first chores was to rearrange the desks and seating arrangements for perhaps 50 writers and editors.

The Wall Street Journal notes, “Companies should think carefully about who they put where, according to experts who study office design and workplace psychology.”

Actually, companies should think carefully about getting a concealed-carry permit for the poor sap charged with carrying out the changes. I discovered among my co-workers — whom I had always considered a happy lot — simmering feuds of biblical longevity and Hatfield-McCoy intensity.

When the job was complete, I counted it a success because there had been no fatalities, but I took the precaution of locating my own chair so my back was against a pillar.

And, yes, it was an open-plan office, one advantage of which is that there are lots of witnesses when someone finally loses it and tries to brain a co-worker with those ficus trees that interior decorators unaccountably believe will boost morale and productivity.

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