No need to argue anymore

On a quiet day in a dusty corner of the BBC (ie the World Service) last week, the old open-plan-versus-private-office wound was re-opened, complete with a full re-run of the history of the office and the obligatory commentary of Frank Duffy, seemingly still the only voice of authority on the matter a couple of decades in. Don’t have the dubious “luxury” of a private office with your name on the door? Apparently it’s all the fault of the Nazis. Right.

The only immediate response I could find was that such an anodyne debate is now irrelevant. I had nothing at all to add. Other than for individual preference, we have learned that in one respect or another, the workplace is a subtle balance between a number of factors.

For the avoidance of any doubt (not that there should be any) I am a practitioner, not an academic. What I am about to propose may have already been published and the royalties already collected from down the back of the sofa, further confirming Jung’s hunch about a collective unconscious. Let’s face it – with only a few exceptions, such as @smartco, most academic books about the workplace are as interesting and pointless as a large bowl of unsweetened muesli with all of the raisins removed. (Incidentally, I once guest-reviewed a book for a journal co-authored by a now-famous academic that suggested that “windows are a great idea”. Really).  Workplace is a practical discipline, we learn from taking part not from pontificating from a dingy cell in a former-polytechnic.

So here is the proposition, which should be considered with the table below. We have a workplace, existing or proposed, in question. Set against a number of criteria – I have suggested eleven, there may be more, or less, but by now I have lost interest – it is possible to assign a value along a continuum from one extreme (probably zero) to another (probably ten). There is no “hard data” in play (sorry @oseland), the assignment in each case is a value judgment. I have set out what the extremes might be. Those to the left are the more random and organic, those to the right more traditional and structured. Having marked the point on the continuum for each criteria, we then drawing a line vertically, connecting those points. One can therefore see a pattern reflecting the choices made.  It provides us with an opportunity to understand the balance in play, and make comparisons between workplaces. Good grief that almost sounds like benchmarking – if you hear a clap of thunder, that’s me done for.

We might call it the Libra Scale, for the hell of naming things.

A straight line down the left would be something akin to Perry Timms’ #punkworkplace (we discussed it this month over a Virtual Cuppa in OnOffice) whereas a line predominantly navigating values to the right might be a tightly-specified client-facing corporate office.

None: design determined by local needs at appropriate time


Comprehensive: fully proscriptive solution
None: allow space to develop, future/opportunity focussed


Comprehensive: evidence-based design, present/reality focussed
Local: reflects needs and culture of location and business


Corporate: space reflects brand/image required
Interaction-oriented: fully open, accessible space


Focus-oriented: primarily enclosed or bookable space
Casual: reflective of itself rather than norms


Formal: reflecting norms of business etiquette
Internal space: design focus and investment on occupied areas


External-facing space: design focus and investment on front-of-house
Unpredictable: varied, chaotic, clashing


Predictable: vanilla, minimal, crisp, co-ordinated
Fluid: space can be altered and purpose changed at any time


Fixed: space and usage fixed
Free: all space held in common, without defined purpose


Stipulated: all space designated re user or purpose
Self-service: unstructured, based on response to changing needs


Structured: full pre-designed and procured programme
Complete: workplace absorbs continual change


None: change to workplace requires full re-design

Developed as an idea before the BBC article, the model barely references “open plan” and “private office” other than in ORIENTATION where it poles interaction versus focus. That’s because it no longer matters.

None of the points on the scale against any of the criteria is right or wrong, there is no preferential pattern. It is about the fundamentals of human beings and their individual and collective needs in a physical space, contracted to (in whatever form) the host organisation, with its own aggregated or determined needs – with all of the variables that these facets present. It’s the way it has always been since Aristotle perched on an 1800×800 desk with a return, and irrespective of advances in technology, or the pronouncements of frazzled CEO’s, it always will be.

Open plan or private offices? We don’t think in those terms any more. It’s over. Let it heal.

5 thoughts on “No need to argue anymore

  1. Neil, nicely done. But you do know you have the essence of a semantic differential scale? There doesn’t have to be a right or wrong answer for it to nevertheless be quantifiable. We will make a social scientist of you yet (actually according to Ornstein and others we are all social scientists already). Scales like the one you are suggested are great for opening up discussions and exploring differences such as what is current and what is required in the future, or looking at trends in requirements between different teams and roles, or even for exploring outliers and variation rather than norms/averages.

  2. “Offices are supposed to express our desires. Why is it that in spite of great expenditure and effort we still have substantial frustration? The answer lies in recognizing that we are dealing with conflicts in human desire. In trying to make a pure resolution of some factor, we frequently cause dissatisfaction. Where are the conflicts?
    – The privacy versus involvement conflict
    – Geometry versus humanism
    – The war of communication devices”
    Robert Propst – 1968

  3. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Neil.

    I am no workplace expert. My interest in workplace design came about by serendipity. I was fascinated, back in 2009, to hear Frank Duffy talk about how “architectural design is contextually and temporally located, and emerges from the intersection of specific combinations of history, politics, social and technological developments.”

    Frank mentioned Burolandschaft. Since this article in Fastcompany, which @PerryTimms brought to our attention, was part of the inspiration for the post, I would like to comment on it.

    I had never heard of Burolandschaft and discovered that the movement, which emerged within a specific historical context, was “intended to provide collaborative, humane environments.” I recognised then that an office I worked in between 1975 and 1979 was designed around Burolandschaft principles. I vividly remember the physical workplace, but what I remember more than anything was a holistic philosophy underpinning attitudes towards staff.

    We were trusted, valued and trained to our back teeth. We worked flexi-hours. Core hours were between 11.00 and 3.00pm. We could come and go as we pleased, subject to negotiating work loads with our supervisors. We had a staff / management consultative committee. We had a staff restuarant, where we mixed with people on the other floors.

    Although the company was hierarchical and paternalistic (the Personnel Director was a Colonel in the Territorial Army) it was also forward-thinking. The approach to opportunity was egalitarian. I owe a lot to my time in that company.

    So here we are in 2013, in different times and with different business challenges, opportunities and needs. Are practitioners like yourself influenced by ideas? Of course, some more than others I suppose.

    Burolandschaft, for me, represents a uniting philosophy that emerged from a time and place, and which incorporated elements of physical workplace design and performance systems. Can what it represented be re-interpreted for now? And what might that mean for holistic approaches to HR, IT and workplace design in practice and for unique contexts? Yes, I could not agree more that the “open-plan-versus-private-office” misses design issues by a mile.

  4. Thanks Anne Marie, great comments – and as you so often say (and I quote relentlessly) – there are no new paradigms. I do wonder how much of your positive experience was down to the Burolandschaft design approach to the workplace, and how much was really the result of management caring about its people, including and listening to them, creating a sense of purpose, with the workplace design just being one small part of it. If the same organisation had treated you the same way, but the workplace was instead merely reflective of those of the time, would your recollection be just as positive? I would suspect so.

  5. Of course I cannot ascribe intention to that company and it is so long ago. What I would say, though, is their approach to the workplace was consistent with “creating a sense of purpose’. Everything management did in creating a performance environment was consistent with an underlying philosophy – who knows for sure though?

    Been reflecting this afternoon on design approach to the workplace, plus supporting OD / HR practices. It is interesting to me that movements like Burolandschaft as I experienced it (plus supporting work practices) and the Japanese approaches to quality, also associated with holistic philosophies of work, are linked to economies that emerged following national disaster.

    Coincidence? Social Business a nascent philosophy for our post-financial crisis times?

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