Open Office drives you mad!

Open Office drives you mad!

For more than 17 years I have been working in an open plan office. Then we were still allowed to call it a “Großraumbüro”. Nothing in the world could convince me to return to my cube, here I don’t miss anything – but, actually I hate it. I can never really concentrate on anything.
Open plan office structures are indispensable in many lines of business as people can more easily communicate without barriers between them. At the same time complete workforces are driven mad by high levels of background noise, visual disturbance and constant observance by fellow workers and no chance of a space to retreat to. So, who’s fault is that? What is the solution?

The overburdened architects

Let’s start with the architects: It is all their fault! They are the ones who created this mess. With regards to open plan offices they are like bad lovers: they always want it but never reach a climax. The client is left dissatisfied and frustrated despite having spent a lot of money. “Yes – but that was the clients brief”, the architect will say. “I made lots of drawings, followed all the CEO’s wishes. There wasn’t much communication with the user. This was not wanted.”
The design process nowadays still takes place without involving the user – especially within architectural competitions. So without an intense foreplay, without knowing the user’s preferences there CAN NOT be satisfaction concerning the working environment. In short: without participation, it’s useless!

Day-to-day camp psychosis

How perverse! Laying hens get their beaks clipped so that, when kept in cage-free production, they do not peck each other to death. Lemmings all of a sudden take flight when things get overcrowded – even at risk of death. And what about us human beings?
Looking at office spaces nowadays one gets the impression that “space-saving” is a miracle cure. Give your staff as little space as possible and you will save vast sums of money, is what the controllers say. That is why it is also their fault.
But saving space is an error in reasoning: building cost make up 10%, personnel expenditure accounts for 80% of company costs. So saving building cost and thereby creating dissatisfaction and sickness-related absenteeism is following the wrong tack. Calculating sustainable space requirements has more to do with sociology than with mathematics.

You are all getting on my nerves!!!

Civilisation according to Kant means that human beings raise each other to a “well-behaved cooperation”. In most offices victims become offenders: As I am not able to concentrate anyway, I might as well forget all politeness and interrupt at any time. At the end of the day everybody is unnerved and tries to ignore the colleagues babble with ear plugs.
Actually mutual mindfulness should play an even greater role the less walls an office has. And who says that quiet zones have to be spaces? Why not timed or as part of office culture? So it is all our fault when open plan offices don’t function.

Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp and 37 signals has introduced his company to a silent Thursday [no-talk thursday]. On this day – similar to libraries – talking is completely forbidden. No meetings, no phone calls, no conversations. The result is, that the employees complete more tasks on this day, than they normally do in a whole week.

Everyman’s dacha

For staff open plan offices result in a complete loss of control over loud & quiet, warm & cold, light & dark. Someone who is not able to determine his or her own working environment, who can not talk without disturbing or being disturbed, will perceive inconveniences or trouble as particularly bad and will retreat – but to where?
The GDR – a state that was not known for giving its population much self-determination – was regarded as a so-called “NIschengesellschaft” (niche-society). As free speech was not possible in the public realm, citizens withdrew to niches of privacy such as their dachas in the country side. Within the families and among friends there was more and jollier life, love and parties than in the West.

So, for those who want to have it all: open, communicative, light-flooded and blooming office spaces AND happy, satisfied staff – you need spatial and social areas of retreat, acoustically screened sofas, think tanks, kitchens and canteens.

Dear employers, dear architects, please have more courage to create niches!


18.08.2016 in