There’s been noise here and there on the concept of “open office spaces”. These are work spaces where everyone can see each other, communication is (theoretically) improved and people in general feel more relaxed and thus able to do work.
Noise is distracting, camaraderie is (sometimes) indeed heightened (although I can’t imagine it’s fun for introverts or people with communication-related difficulties), people feel like they have less privacy and in general people are ineffectively multitasking and not doing work.
…Why is this a bad thing again?
From the anti-work perspective this is a tool that (while perhaps as a panacea isn’t advisable) can make work much more tolerable for people. They can socialize more easily, people who can work past distractions (like younger people) and ideally this sort of work environment would make play much more possible. And ideally it would encourage a more relaxing and flexible internment for the workers.
Obviously this isn’t happening right now and part of that is because the workers don’t have a choice in how open/closed the space is. I think the golden mean here would be having a workplace that has designated open spaces that the workers get together and organize themselves but also have their own private spaces. Diversifying how workers interact with their work may prove a more useful tool to tackling workplace efficiency than panaceas of open or closed.
Part of this proposal on my part also subverts the current “open” model is the workers deciding how “open” and how “closed” the space actually is. At present it’s just upper-management doing what they do with the trappings of “how much they care”. Given that it’s no surprise that these plans seem to more so revolve around reducing costs and improving surveillance than anything else.
As the Washington Post’s Lindsey Kaufman points out:
These new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs. Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal cellphone use isn’t occupying billing hours.
Though, even if you had a worker directed workplace this could still be a problem because the issue of surveillance doesn’t go away just because it’s your fellow workers have power. There can still be those people who want to “take charge” or lead the process themselves. They might call you out for slacking or taking too much of the organization’s free time (which, of course, can sometimes be a legitimate critique) and they could also just somebody who doesn’t like you for whatever reason.
But again, this is another reason why I think a healthy mix of open and closed (and actually closed off systems with people having their own rooms, not the cubicle model). It lets people get away from others if they want nothing to do with them and their private spaces are more likely to allow them to focus (or just do what they want in general) without being hassled by other people.
To reiterate a bit: I’m not saying I actually support open spaces as it stands because, as I’ve said, the open space workplace of today is a panacea and I don’t think that sort of arrangement is very effective at navigating problems. This is especially true when the demand for more open spaces may not even be coming from the workers who are effected by it but just the management who are looking to skimp costs more than anything else.
The open-office as it stands is, as Maria Konnikova of the New Yorker points out is a trap:
In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.
A part of me feels like I shouldn’t care so much (maybe not at all is too strong) if institutions in capitalism fail. I mean, I’m against capitalism and a lot of what makes up this society. But on the other hand there are real people who had no real say in the matter who now have their lives ruined because management (as usual) thinks it knows what’s best.
More than having workers in office spaces though I think we need to diversify where people work as well.
Kaufman says at the end of their article that:
On the other hand, companies could simply join another trend — allowing employees to work from home. That model has proven to boost productivity, with employees working more hours and taking fewer breaks. On top of that, there are fewer interruptions when employees work remotely. At home, my greatest distraction is the refrigerator.
In general I’m all for the Homebrew Industrial Revolution. Or, in other words, more home-based and neighborhood based projects to take up people’s time instead of cramming them all into one building and having them figure out how to make the economy run better. Not that there’s anything wrong with businesses per se’ but I wouldn’t mind diversifying the place as well as the space that the work itself happens in.
So sure, open spaces as they exist suck but part of me can’t help but laugh a little bit when the managers ideas backfire on them and end up alienating workers more than it serves them. I feel bad for the workers but I also have some hope that this alienation will spur some workers to innovate and get away from capitalism and work even if just in small ways at first.
But then I guess I’m also a bit of an idealist.
I support open-spaces in limited contexts and not as prescriptions from the top-down but situations worked out by the workers themselves. In such cases I support open-offices because they’ll help people realize how little work should actually dictate our lives. It may also show how our jobs should be seasoned with socialization (to the extent we want it) and a sense of openness that is counter-balanced by privacy that we can also equally access.