Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Office workers of the world unite!

I recently had a go at someone (@suebecks) on Twitter for posting a link to an article favourable to open offices and hotdesking in the workplace. Although this person was just highlighting a new trend, this trend needs to be stopped.
Flying over MY office cubicle.
In the name of full disclosure I work in a university open office in a 3 x 3 meter personal cubicle. The floor contains some closed offices, some open cubicles and mostly open desks used by graduate students and post docs. My grad student can literally lean sideways and see what I am doing on my computer. The office lay out was forced upon us by management with a beautiful new building (not being facetious, it really is gorgeous to look at). I tried to have an open mind when I moved in almost two years ago, but it simply does not work. It is noisy, distracting and I cannot have private and confidential conversations on the phone or in my office. The latter point is especially important as I need to talk to students, and talk about student problems on a regular basis. The new design has also placed locked doors between staff (faculty in the US) and our students in order to prevent public access to our floors.
The article in question takes this diabolical trend towards open offices another step farther by proposing hotdesking within open offices. Why is this diabolical? The answer has to do with human nature. Humans are social animals and as such, we always form hierarchies and need to assert our individuality and place within the group by claiming space and status. Primate social hierarchies are as much part of our nature as two legs and two arms and opposable thumbs. These hierarchical instincts simply cannot be suppressed without consequences. Indeed, they may not be suppressible at all as I can think of no successful examples of a social or political system of perfect equality and communal property ever working in all of human history. In fact the best analogy for the complete removal of all personal space from the work place is the way old style communism does away with private property where the individual is no longer valued in favour of the collective. History has proven that in such a system, only the privileged party rulers have power and that the masses are inevitably abused.
Part of the propaganda used to justify hotdesking in open offices is the lie that more creative work results from groups than from individuals. Creativity always springs from individuals who dare to question the accepted premises of the group. Destroying a sense of individuality can only promote derivative group thinking by suppressing the individual and making it harder to question the group. Short sighted senior managers might feel more secure with such a group think attitude but those with vision should see the long term risk to productivity. Part of me suspects that the real motive behind these moves towards stripping workers of ownership in the work place is to make mid-level office workers feel less valued so as to keep them living in fear. What better way to communicate that you are expendable than to make sure you have no physical presence in the office? This way workers can be intimidated into working more while fear keeps them demanding less. It is a long term cost cutting exercise to relegate mid-level workers to the factory floor, and factory floor wages. Open offices and hotdesking are simply tools of tyranny and oppression at the business level. So stand up for freedom, and fight the un-American trend toward the communist take-over of our business work spaces!