Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Five years ago, I put together a research paper on the problems of open plan offices in universities. These problems were by no means limited to the higher education sector but were evident across multiple industries. One of the points I raised related to the dangers of disease transmission. Of course, this is now a problem which has come home to roost in a very major way in the wake of the global pandemic. Although the ostensible reason for the construction of open plan offices was “collaboration”- something they arguably reduced in fact, the convenient rhetoric hid the true reason, which was a perceived cost saving (again perceived rather than actual – given a measured reduction of worker productivity in this environment) and greater surveillance.

There must be many companies now kicking themselves for their false economy in foisting these designs on their hapless workers. When this article titled “The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Office” appeared in The New York Times recently, I had to laugh. As the article says of a movement which has gathered increasing momentum in the last ten years:

The embrace of open floor plans stretches back to the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. It was hailed as essential to collaboration and creativity, but is, of course, also about cramming more people into expensive office space, a situation that people now realize creates unnerving petri-dish conditions.

The phrase ‘now realize’ is ironic considering that these dangers had already been pointed out in some detail by researchers and of course unceremoniously ignored. The miseries of the open plan worker, now mask wearing and surrounded by perspex, are only set to be compounded.

As Ron Weiner says below, a number of the measures taken to deal with the problem will amount to little more than theatre – no more than a symbolic gesture by employers with very little real world efficacy for their employees.

The proposed changes to the offices have struck some as more cosmetic than substantive, especially the sneeze guard.

“I call it social distancing theater, like T.S.A. security theater after 9/11,” said Ron Wiener, chief executive of iMovR, a Seattle company that designs standing desks that are used at many large employers, from Google and Facebook to the Department of Defense.

So how is the problem going to be solved? Allow Darwinian selection to take its course and save on salaries? Send the workforce home? Have a staggered roster system? Many of the open plan offices are new, built on the graveyard of individual offices – too large an investment for companies to demolish and rebuild or even substantially refit. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

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