Why Paxo wants to tear down open-plan offices
Famed journalist blasts “reeking” communal work spaces for making staff feel “mechanical” and “interchangeable”
Open-plan offices are “human warehouses” that should be banned, according to journalist and former BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. In a passionate polemic for the Guardian, the famously uppity interrogator condemned managers’ use of open-plan working environments for devaluing staff and spawning humiliation over incidents that should be handled confidentially.
In Paxman’s view, open-plan offices are a sure-fire way of “telling you that you don’t matter”, and are “devoid of any personal touch”. He also accused bosses of spreading communal office spaces too far beyond their origins. “Once upon a time,” he wrote, “the open-plan office was the home of the typing pool. Now it is the everyday working environment for most of us. Like the filthy term 'typing pool', the open-plan office tells us precisely what our bosses think of us – that we are employed to fulfil a mechanical task and that we are all interchangeable. It is the bean counter’s answer to the wrong question.”
He thundered: “The poor saps condemned to labour in this environment – deliberately designed so the bosses can see whether any galley slaves are doing something unproductive like talking to another human being – soon learn to fear the very place designed for them to interact in.
“They have seen enough people summoned by email for an encounter with their boss in a specially booked meeting room. Too many colleagues emerge in tears, for a summons to the meeting room is as likely to mean you’re being sacked as being given a heads-up on issues likely to come up in next week’s thought shower.”
Paxman also argued that open-plan offices are inherently toxic to the imagination, depersonalise staffers’ daily working conditions – and very often spawn unintended consequences because they don’t reflect the realities of human behaviour. “Deliberately inventing an uncreative environment is one thing,” he raged. “But it is worse than that. A masterstroke by the buffoons who commissioned the [new Maida Vale] BBC building was to decree that the ordeal be aggravated by refusing to provide either coathangers or waste bins.
“Within weeks,” he added, “the place was filthy, reeking with a distinctive aroma of wet coats and feet and ancient pot noodles. At one point there was even a goon patrol to check that no one had personalised their workspace with a potted plant.” The overall message, Paxman argued, was “don’t dare to try to put down any reminder, like a photograph, that you are a human, with a family and friends”. Furthermore, he said, the open-plan office “soon becomes a natural incubator for any passing winter bug”.
Read Paxman’s original column.
Want some flexible-working hints to break the open-plan mould? Then check out these details on the forthcoming CMI seminar The Technology of 24/7 and Remote Working.
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