The enduring misery of the private office
The open plan office often comes in for a pasting, particularly from journalists. The derogatory bandwagon was up on the ramps for much-needed running repairs during the pandemic, but is now back on the road, shuttling the ill-informed and irrationally-charged between small towns on both sides of the Atlantic. While much of the energy once dedicated to the pogrom has gone into the equally soul-destroying slugfest pitting the office versus home working, opposition to open plan has emerged as yet another reason not to resume the commute. And so the zombie that is the private office has inevitably been touted as a bargaining chip. Even if a ridiculous one.
Many of those advocating the private office as a panacea are unlikely to recall what the office was once like when subdivided into.. well…. offices. Here, therefore, for their benefit and as a useful reminder for us all to be careful what we wish for, is an explanation as to why it is its very own 120 square foot self-contained hell.
The private office of course hails from an era when function was subjugated to status. Once the symbol of ‘management’ in industrial premises, usually with a birds-eye view of the factory floor for slacker-spotting, for many decades size mattered. More than anything. It conferred rank, casting the long, dark shadow of entitlement. If you had a bigger office you could tell someone with a smaller office what to do, even if you were an idiot.
As recently as the 1990s I conducted a space requirements evaluation for an office in an unnamed European country on a spreadsheet, allocating window bays to grades. At that time offices were helpfully built with a central corridor with rooms of varying size either side to aid this method. If you were promoted, you immediately demanded your extra window bay. If it wasn’t available, the acceptable response was to kick up the most almighty stink until it was. I can also recall besuited managers (always men, naturally) on hands and knees with a standard issue 40cm ruler measuring the dimensions of their box, to make sure it wasn’t smaller than their neighbour’s. And being asked to move walls mere inches if it transpired it was.
The open plan office has been a great leveller. That was part of the intent, a considered and concerted reaction to the draining insanity of overly-emotive testosterone-fuelled status games. It’s true that status always finds its toys, but the removal of the rank-prescribed unit was a huge step toward to a more equitable, grown-up way of providing space, allowing freedom of choice of worksettings appropriate to the task. In the early days it required leaders prepared to give up their estate and to challenge their lieutenants to do the same. It wasn’t always easy. In some organisations, it still isn’t.
Other than ego made real estate, there are a number of reasons why the private office will never return as a staple of office design — and why we won’t want it to.
First, quite obviously, it’s inflexible. In an age of irregular and unpredictable office attendance, uncertain requirements and highly-agile organisations, the stud-and-plasterboard office has all the agility of a Tory donor in black tie. Local builders were amongst those who cursed the rise of the open plan office, accustomed as they were to skipping and installing swathes of drywall. Demountable systems have few of the acoustic properties required, and their low-end serviced office aesthetic leaves much to be desired.
Second, therefore, it’s ridiculously expensive, to build, frequently re-build and sustain. One office takes the same amount of space as four regular workstations. Given that it’s occupant is unlikely to be present for more than a couple of days a week, the economics look more insane than a UK fiscal event and it gives the lie to any expressed commitment to environmental sustainability. And of course a private office is just that — private. Assigned to one owner. While the ‘hot desk’ has become a regular feature of flexible office space, prudently reflecting variable patterns of need and use, the ‘hot office’ remained an anathema. The pictures on the desk confer exclusivity. Unless the occupants, unbeknown to one another, share the same wife and pets.
Third, it defies the logic of attending the office in the first place. If the sole objective in making the effort to be there is to interact with colleagues or perhaps meet new, isolating oneself in a cabin makes no sense at all. Far from being an incentive to return, it’s a full-fat incentive to stay at home. Unless of course the desire is to get away from home, which raises a number of issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with workspace planning and are best resolved by initially taking a long, hard and honest look at yourself.
Fourth, the sense of achievement from pacing all four corners of your estate is never fulfilling enough. The dopamine rush falls off a cliff with the first soft-close of the door. There’s always a bigger office, with a better view, or better furniture, or a fluffier carpet. The inexcusable behaviour that follows, at the expense of all others, is both irrational and unfortunately all too human.
Fifth, voluntary solitary confinement, too, has a short shelf life. In the silence for which you longed, you become aware of your own heartbeat. No-one knocks at the door that you proudly tell people is always open. The muffled voices might be talk of you, plotting. No-one asks you for lunch, you’re forgotten. Everyone may have actually left altogether, you may be the last and no-one bothered to tell you.
The private office is the ultimate symbol of an age that passed with the fax machine, telex, pulse-dial phone, 4-drawer cabinet, stationery cupboard, manila folder and treasury tags. To pine for its return is a T.30 handshake with history. We may still see a few, required by virtue of a differentiated function, but today functionally determined nonetheless. Even if that equates to seniority. But we peer through the vision panel with curiosity. And certainly no longer with envy.