Wednesday 24 January 2018

Why I will never give up on my open plan office

AS a journalist, I have worked in open-plan offices most of my life. They can drive you nuts at times, but I find it difficult to imagine any other way of working.

Newspapers embraced open-plan offices back in the 1920s and 1930s, long before they became fashionable in other industries.

So did the business end of the financial services sector. Traders and all the other people in financial services who need to swap information quickly have always favoured open-plan offices, where you can shout a piece of information over people's head in seconds and keep tabs on what is going on right across the company.

Friends who are not used to offices can't understand how we can bear it. I'm the first to admit that it is not always easy and there are days when I long for some privacy. The noise of other people's phone calls, televisions tuned to half-a-dozen different stations and keyboards tapping is not always conducive to thinking clearly.

Prying eyes mean that it is impossible to just bang your head on the table and cry out in frustration. But I would not have it any other way. On a bad day, one can feed off other people's energy like a vampire and it helps to ensure that everybody pulls their weight.

That's why I was so intrigued to see that Brian Hayes, the energetic junior minister at the Department of Public Reform, plans to start putting senior civil servants into open-plan offices.

Anybody who has reason to wander around government departments from time to time will know that nobody who is anybody in the civil service currently works in an open-plan office.

This means that most departments have endless corridors with small, poky offices. The overall impression is one of slightly effete and faded grandeur.

Mr Hayes has two ideas: open-plan offices and decentralisation by moving offices to the edges of Dublin where rents are cheaper.

When it comes to open-plan offices, he is following in the steps of Michael Bloomberg, the businessman and New York mayor who created a so-called bullpen in the centre of New York's City Hall to replicate the system he used in his own company and Wall Street.

The mayor holds most of his meetings in this room, in full view and earshot of his colleagues. By all accounts, his system took some getting used to for the old hands, but has yielded dividends.

Many have copied this style over the years but they rarely understand the thinking behind it. Former Bank of Ireland chief executive Mike Soden turned the top floor of Bank of Ireland into an open-plan office, but the desks were spaced out and there was none of the hum that you'd expect.


Mr Hayes is right to insist that senior civil servants sit close to one another, but this should be the beginning of a much bigger revolution to bring the State closer to the people and smash down all the barriers that prevent good public sector workers from helping the public and allow bad public sector workers to hide behind walls.

Incidentally, status-loving civil servants need not worry too much; even open-plan offices have a hierarchy. The closer you sit to the boss, the higher up the scale you are.

I'm not so keen on the decentralisation idea, however. Moving some staff to offices far away from the action effectively excludes these people from promotion.

Healthy companies take good people and keep promoting them until they reach their limits.

Keeping thousands of people penned into large offices miles from the centre of policy-making will prevent many good people with a deep understanding of some topic or other from rising.

It also does exactly the opposite of open-plan offices because it stops the sort of chance encounters in lifts, canteens and smoking rooms that lead to productive cross-fertilisation. It may make sense for the bottom line, but it will hollow out government departments.

Mr Hayes should commit to openness and save his money there rather than pushing people into the suburbs.

Irish Independent

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