Live at the Witch Trials

In the perennial search for a scapegoat for the ills of labour in the knowledge economy, at irregular intervals the fourth estate rallies a clump of its pitchfork-waving townsfolk for a rousing pogrom against the easiest target of all – the `’open plan’ office. What makes this so appealing is that it can all be achieved without having to get off its collective backside, especially when a “rate your office on a scale of how crap it is” survey is gifted that supports their personal prejudice.

Bastions of fairminded and open journalism from the Guardian, Independent, Business Week and the Dreadnought have invited the ubiquitous arrangement outside. Even the normally rational, balanced and liberal-minded Daily Mail has weighed in. I am indebted to Nigel Oseland for having rounded the rabble behind the stables, I just added the sarcasm.

But amidst the hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing and torch-burning, not a mention of otiose command and control management structures, punishment-by-presence, mistrust, suspicion and fear of usurpation, the untrained and vindictive set in charge of an outdated appraisal system and the fear of the annual stain, increasingly unrealistic expectations of performance, the floodwiring of every corner of our lives from the technology that was once going to set us free, the unrelenting demand to do more, to change, to progress, to be seen to be doing something useful, the ephemeral strain of achievement and the half-life of each triumph, the constricting lack of opportunity, the promises turned to mitigating circumstances the choloroform of remedial coaching at the first signs of a consciousness of the insanity of it all, the chaos of our minds spattered across flipcharts in a rainbow of post-its buried amongst which is a scrawled wish that it would all just go away.

No, its all about the open plan office, the visible, tangible manifestation of modernity. If only we could be put into our own private office the world would work just like the brochure portrays, and it would all make sense again. Despite the fact that we cannot meaningfully separate environment from the culture it supports, if we create a landscape of sufficient moral hysteria, it might all go back to the way it was before….well, before they took our private offices away.

But like every golden age, it never existed. We could put you in a private office, but the novelty, like all novelties, would be shortlived. It is the other end of a spectrum, with all of the equal and opposite disadvantages that would soon become apparent. When we all worked in private offices, it was crap too, but different crap. Then the press could fill their boots vilifying their bosses for locking them away in padded cells, denying them social contact, depriving them of a basic human right.

Which may, on reflection, not be such a bad idea.


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