Monday, January 26, 2009

Open-plan office and peer-monitoring socialism against creativity

When I started working as a programmer after I graduated from college in 1990s, I was fortunate enough to have a wall-separated booth, thoughwithout a door. This is something which workers have taken for granted atresearch laboratories in the USA or Canada. But things have beendifferent in Japan, where I live and work.

Having a separated space for individuals has been considered a luxury inJapanese companies, where people think space is money. So I should emphasize I was fortunate; because in Japan still corporateoffices are mostly open-planned: everybody seeing each other with nowall, whole bunch of noise, and is forced to listen to each other.

I had to work in 1980s with an open-plan office in Japan as an inturn,and I thought working in the office would surely hurt my body anddegrade the quality of my thinking. If I were just moving around anddoing ordinary tasks, I wouldn't have considered it much. But I had tothink there for writing a technical report. So I thought something hadto be changed.

I do not reject the idea of shared meeting space or the importance offace-to-face meetings. Those are vital factors of successful companies.But without a place for solitude, nobody would be ableto think. Without thinking, no innovation will come, and nonew idea will emerge. How can you think without being alone?

Recently I've found an article on Web which says working in open-planoffice makes you sick and is hazardous to your health.

A recent study of Dr. VineshOommen and his group in Queensland University of Technology showsthe following results:

Results: Research evidence shows that employees face a multitude ofproblems such as the loss of privacy, loss of identity, low workproductivity, various health issues, overstimulation and low jobsatisfaction when working in an open plan work environment.
Well said.

Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister also write in one of theirclassics Peopleware (2nd Edition, 1999, Dorset HousePublishing) as follows (in Chapter 12):

Management, at its best, should make sure there is enough space, enoughquiet, and enough ways to ensure privacy so that people can create theirown sensible workspace.
I've read the 1st edition of Peopleware (published 1987) in 1989, so theworkplace privacy issue is well-known for at least 20 years.

On the other hand, Japanese workplace has little changed for the past 20years. I still see many open-plan offices, especially amongnon-engineering workers.

I suspect Japanese open-plan offices are designed for managers to putthe subordinates under surveillance during the working hours. This isan example of a dark side in Japanese workplace socialism.

In a typical office layout, a manager in a team has the own desk besidesthe cluster of the desks for the team members. A team member can't takea rest or make a physical movement during working hours. I think thissort of desk layout does not respect the health of the team members, letalone the privacy or the productivity.

I've found quite a few articles about this open-plan office sicknessissue on the Web. So I think this is a matter of concern for manypeople. Maybe this is a sort of backlash due to the recent economydepression.

I'd rather work alone if I were put into an open-plan office every day again, solong as my brain and my ideas are the source of my income.