For many people, the big return to work this week means returning to an open-plan office. Indeed, the opportunity to see – and hear – all of one’s colleagues, all of the time, defines the modern workplace.

But is the move from smaller spaces a big mistake? Writing for the Washington Post, Lindsey Kaufman argues that it is:

“Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers.”

The open-plan office has isn’t just a management fad, it also has ideological connotations:

“…as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York,  making ‘the Bullpen’ a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.”

A decade ago, the ‘modernisers’ of the British Conservative Party made a big thing about moving Conservative Central Office from the iconic 32 Smith Square building and into more modern accommodation elsewhere. It was said that the old CCO was a ‘rabbit warren’ of dark corners that lent themselves to plotting. This wasn’t true, as most of it had already been converted to open-plan.

Furthermore, as the modernisers themselves demonstrated, you can plot in just about any environment. What you can’t do in an open-plan office, however, is concentrate:

A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy.”

The supposed upside of open-plan working is exaggerated:

“…‘ease of interaction’ with colleagues — the problem that open offices profess to fix — was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 percent of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue.”

Kaufman makes the link between the move to open-plan offices and that other great employment innovation: working from home. “At home, my greatest distraction is the refrigerator,” she says.

Unfortunately, the less diligent homeworkers among us usually find other domestic distractions – which wouldn’t exist in the companionable hush of the traditional office. Indeed the biggest problem with open-plan isn’t the loss of privacy, or of solitude, but of quiet in a public place.

It’s as if those who rule us can’t bear to hear their own thoughts. The inner pandemonium – or perhaps the echoing void – must be drowned out with constant external noise. Thus one-by-one the oases of calm have fallen: the workplace, the train carriage and even the public library. Only the churches remain.

We hear a lot about conspiracies of silence, but the conspiracy against silence is the real scandal of our age.

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