Dust from the walls of institutions….

 An open letter to Jeremy Paxman

Dear Jeremy

This is a reply to your article in the Guardian of 12 September.

You have certainly woken up the “open plan” agitati again, just when we thought that every journalist and commentator with a personal gripe and the privilege of access to a mainstream media channel had got it off their chest. I really thought the witch trials were over.

If I were a king for a day there would certainly be other more pressing matters than “open plan”. Perhaps this suggests an exhausted agenda on your part, or a desire for not too taxing an eight hours on the throne (with an hour for lunch). That you have never met anyone who likes open plan offices probably says more about the circles in which you mix than open plan offices, so perhaps royalty is not too distant a wish. While you clearly have frustrations at not finding an office with your name on the door and the cloying smell of Pledge in the air, your position is flawed in a number of respects.

Firstly, like so many others, you entangle “open plan” (sharing desks) with a flexible workplace (a wide range of space settings for everything you do in a working day – including a quiet chat with a channel controller), and your reluctance to research or identify the difference (as so often is the case) undermines your position. The beneficial unintended consequence here might just be a helpful nudge to the workplace industry toward more clarity on the difference so that when commentators such as yourself take up arms you at least are aware of against what. Then we might all have a more productive discussion.

Secondly, you consider that the modern workplace is a plot against human dignity, a weapon of oppression. While there may be the odd tyrant hiding in the light, most organisations that have invested considerable sums in workplace rennovation – the BBC amongst them – have engaged with their staff, enhanced and enriched the facilities available, and created a vastly improved experience aimed at bringing colleagues together for the benefit of themselves and the corporate body. In doing so, they show clearly that people matter. As with all such investments there has to be a commercial proposition (shareholders would rightly demand it), and the solutions on offer are not without the odd flight of fancy or rare but regrettable reversion to an immersive kindergarten. But those of us in the wider workplace discipline are committed to improving the outcome for all – we willingly share our IP, passion, creativity and commitment in the cause of improving the working life of as many as possible.

Finally, you offer nothing in return. The implied alternative is either a reversion to long and silent corridors and the “inexorable sadness of pencils” (Roethke) – or a crippling and unsustainable investment in real estate. Or, perhaps, just a glossy rendition of the past. I am old enough to have worked in de-humanised environments in which the number of window bays depicted your worth, where you could arrive, work all day and leave without saying a word to – or even seeing – another living soul – and you could die in your office and it take several days for anyone to notice. It was the institutionalised sadness of these desolate halls that inspired me to do something about it.

The one chink of light in your piece was the comment about coatstands – strangley, its one of the “little things” I often nag designers about, that are so often forgotten until the first monsoon after move-in. We really must sweat the small stuff, or it consumes the big ideas.

If you were king for a day, you would (with thankfully very few remaining exceptions) soon realise that you were gifted only a ceremonial role. What a blessed relief.

Yours sincerely

 

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