Saturday, December 31, 2022

Open Plan Offices: Weighing Their Effectiveness

“For decades, research has found that open plan offices are bad for companies, bad for workers, bad for health and bad for morale. And yet they just won’t die. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need a bit of privacy — walls and a door. And yet employers, decade after decade, neglect to give workers what they need, refuse to do what’s in their own self-interest.”— Columnist and TV commentator David Brooks, “The Immortal Awfulness of Open Plan Workplaces,” The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2022

New York City was utterly transformed by a number of the projects begun or completed under former three-term mayor Michael Bloomberg (pictured): the High Line, a rebuilt World Trade Center and its surrounding Lower Manhattan neighborhood, Hudson Yards, East River Park in Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens, 400 miles of bike lanes throughout the five boroughs. 

No mayor has left such an imprint on the look of America's largest city since Fiorello LaGuardia (with the help of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal) in the Great Depression.

Bloomberg supporters fervently wished he might have similarly altered the landscape of The Wall Street Journal if he had successfully achieved his rumored interest in purchasing Dow Jones. (The Washington Post had also reportedly caught his eye.) That hope was dashed (at least for now) when a Bloomberg spokesman quickly tweeted that he had no such interest.

If Bloomberg could only get his mitts on Rupert Murdoch’s most influential business print publication, the thinking in some quarters surely went, maybe he could return the Journal to something like the separation of news and opinion that largely held sway before the Australian media baron bought the company from the Bancroft family in 2007.

I won’t comment on the political change that might occur under such a scenario. What I’m concerned with here is a physical environment far different from what he left Gotham: the office space that would become part of his media empire. My apprehension arises because few other American corporate titans have trumpeted open-space offices as tirelessly as Bloomberg.

I don’t know if the Murdoch family follows this office model. Maybe they consider it an outgrowth of Bloomberg’s hated RINO outlook.

Judging by the impact Hiz(former)zoner has had on American office design in general, I’m afraid he’ll exert a baleful influence on the health and creativity of any Dow Jones workers that could come into his fold.

I don’t always agree with David Brooks’ views on politics, but his analysis of the controversial and crazy American corporate embrace of Bloomberg’s “open office” is spot on. I just wish the Times columnist would have mentioned Bloomberg by name in the article, so that the debate on this could get the thorough airing it deserves.

In his otherwise excellent piece, Brooks notes the dangers that open-space offices pose to employee health, but dwells on one aspect (stress) without mentioning the one that’s become ubiquitous since late-winter 2000: airborne illnesses like COVID-19. 

Even urging workers to stay home if they feel something coming on is not likely to be helpful if they have insufficient sick days. (And COVID—not to mention a COVID rebound—can exhaust that supply quickly.)

Brooks rails against cubicles, but I’m afraid those units have long since become staples of the modern workplace. At least they could, at their best, provide a modicum of physical separation from adjacent workers.

But I am aware of at least one employer, just before the COVID outbreak, which implemented a renovation that did away even with that. Instead, workers were herded together in triangles, with no partitions between.

Did I mention that this design model became obsolete within just a few months after the COVID outbreak?

How much do you think that America’s C-suites have invested in up-to-date ventilation systems? Your guess is as good as mine. As Liz Szabo’s article nine months ago from Kaiser Health News noted, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers published updated recommendations in 2020 not only for limiting indoor odors and dust but control viruses like COVID-19.

But, because those guidelines are voluntary, there’s no way of telling how closely the business world is adhering to them—anymore than we know right now they are following up on the White House’s initiative (again, voluntary) encouraging schools and workplaces to improve ventilation.

Companies’ best-laid plans for a return to the office—and, let’s be frank, a return to traditional top-down control—keep getting upended by a disease that evolves and adapts to new environments far faster than corporate heads ever have done.

The move towards a more open environment often rests on the contention that it fosters creativity and managerial transparency. That would send great—if corporate heads were willing to accept ideas other than their own, let alone dissent.

But, before Elon Musk started going seriously off the rails with managing his new toy, Twitter (like firing janitors, thus forcing workers at two locations to bring their own toilet paper to the office!), more than a few other CEOs were not only rooting for his return-to-the-office mandates but implementing their own.

Employers are anxious to herd their workers back to the office. If various Amenities of the Month can’t lure them back, then diktats from Human Resources will have to do.

Unfortunately, the types of layouts in Bloomberg L.P. that have been copied elsewhere don’t inspire workers to rush back to their cubicles—and, if those employees find any kind of alternative arrangement out there in the market, they will seize it.

I suppose that if there’s any good outcome from the turbulence that has roiled American politics over the last several years, it’s that Mike Bloomberg never won a Presidential election so he could implement his 2019 plan to make the East Room of the White House into another showcase for theopen office model he followed in his own company.

(The image accompanying this post of Bloomberg, speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Warehouse 215 at Bentley Projects in Phoenix, Ariz., was taken by Gage Skidmore on Feb. 1, 2020.)

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