February 10, 2012 9:20 pm

The plan behind open-plan

Knocking down office walls might promote a greater sense of transparency and egalitarianism, but is it all good?
Illustration showing an office chair behind a broken concrete wall

A little while ago, I had a chance to visit New York’s City Hall, where Michael Bloomberg – the former trader-turned-financial-information-mogul – now works as mayor. As I entered his empire, I experienced a small shock.

During my career as a journalist, I have often walked through government buildings, and become accustomed to seeing a rabbit warren. Across the western world, senior officials typically work from offices interconnected by corridors, guarded by secretaries in ante-chambers.

Bloomberg’s building in downtown Manhattan, though, is different. He sits in a vast, airy, open-plan room, surrounded by officials and banks of giant data screens (showing information on things such as traffic flows or public satisfaction with the police). Anybody holding a meeting is encouraged to sit on a central, raised dais, rather than scuttle into a private hole; the idea, as one employee explained, is to encourage a climate of transparency and collaboration. In theory, in other words, anyone in the mayor’s office can see – and yell at – everyone else; much as they can on a modern financial trading floor or at a newspaper (which, of course, is no accident given that Bloomberg spent most of his career building the financial information giant that bears his name).

Is this open-plan spirit a good thing? It is a fascinating and important question. Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time in the office, and – as anthropologists, architects and psychologists often note – the way we are physically organised shapes how we work and think in a profound way. Yet, generally, we barely even notice our surroundings. Except, that is, when somebody such as Bloomberg tries to shake things up.

But the idea of an “office” – let alone its layout – has not been constant. It first cropped up in Roman times, when magistrates worked in temples and palaces. These typically included a place for storing scrolls, where scribes worked. In subsequent centuries, scroll-keeping continued to dominate, eventually creating the first quasi-cubicle system. By the Middle Ages in Europe, scribes in “offices” were dealing with so much paper that they created a tradition of piling their scrolls high around their individual desks – giving a feeling of “privacy”.

In the 19th century, this trend towards separation intensified, as clerks started to surround their desks with more papers and machines, and bosses expressed hierarchies by retreating to a superior enclave. But in the early 20th century, a new idea spread in American companies: that top managers should watch their workers to keep productivity high. Consequently, “flat top” desks proliferated, to permit oversight (even though bosses continued to retreat to private offices away from the staff, à la Mad Men). Then, in the 1960s, an industrial designer called Robert Propst hit on the ingenious idea of the cubicle office system, and it became fashionable to divide office workers again, to preserve privacy.

But in the past decade, that pendulum has swung back: most large companies have – like Bloomberg – embraced the idea of open-plan space in the hope of promoting collaboration. In truth, corporate experiences of this arrangement are very mixed, as two decades of research by management consultants Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks shows. “There’s some evidence that removing physical barriers and bringing people closer to one another does promote casual interactions,” they wrote last year in an utterly fascinating piece in the Harvard Business Review (which should be required reading for any bosses planning an office design). “But there’s a roughly equal amount of evidence that because open spaces reduce privacy, they don’t foster informal exchanges and may actually inhibit them.”

The key issue, apparently, is whether employees feel any sense of control. “People must feel confident that they can converse without being interrupted or overheard… [and]… must also be able to avoid interacting when they want to,” they write. Without that potential for privacy, staff will instead choose to conduct important business out of the office, or retreat into private “cyber caves”, doing their work entirely online. Moreover, to promote “collaboration”, office bosses must not only approve informal debate, but also promote shared activities within a semi-private space. Congregating around photocopiers and coffee machines helps employees “bond” and share creative ideas, Fayard and Weeks say; creating formal “lounges” does not (Scandinavian Airlines is apparently a wonderful case study for how to get things wrong).

How Bloomberg’s open-plan design at City Hall stacks up, on these metrics, is tough to assess from the outside (the employees I spoke to seemed pretty happy, but it may be early days). But, as someone who has worked in both a rabbit warren and an open-plan environment, I strongly favour the latter, and wish that more governments would adopt the system too. After all, in times of austerity – and when the “Occupy” movements are protesting just a few blocks from Bloomberg’s City Hall – anything that promotes greater transparency and egalitarianism seems a thoroughly good idea. Knocking down walls, in other words, may seem like mere symbolism; but, like all symbols, it can be a powerful place to start.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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