Scientific management and the enduring love of the open plan office

PanopticonThere are many reasons why organisations like open plan offices. When it comes to making the business case for them however, firms prefer to talk about some more than others. So while they prefer to focus on the argument in terms of how openness can foster better lines of communication, collaboration, teamwork and team spirit, they talk rather less about the fact that the open plan is a lot cheaper than its alternatives and how they like it because it allows them to keep an eye on what people are doing. In theory, a great deal more of this surveillance now happens electronically so the need for physical presence should be less pressing, but the residual desire to see with one’s own eyes what people are doing remains. This is the instinct that constrains the uptake of flexible working and also means that there is a hierarchical divide in who gets to decide where they work.

Practically all UK employees now have an equal right to request flexible working. But some are clearly more equal than others. A 2013  survey of 2,000 UK office workers by OnePoll found  that 59 percent of senior staff were granted flexible working privileges compared to just 26 percent  of those working  lower down in the organisation. As we reported last year, the distinctions are also particularly evident in the legal sector.

There is evidently a degree of trust involved in the way firms not only offer employees flexible working arrangements but also their fondness for the open plan office. Managers like to observe staff, but in return staff react to observation. We all understand that people act differently when they think they are being observed and it’s a characteristic that has been applied in interesting ways down the ages.

In the 18th Century the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with his idea of the Panopticon a building with a central observational tower encircled by cells so that each person in the cells knew they could be watched at any moment. Bentham called it ‘a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind’ and while he focussed on its use as a prison, he was also aware of the idea’s usefulness for schools, asylums and hospitals. It is also a useful metaphor for the way some corporate surveillance works. Indeed Bentham got the original idea following a visit to Belarus to see his who was managing sites for the royal family there and had used the idea of a circular building at the centre of an industrial compound to allow a small number of managers to oversee the activities of a large workforce.

This, of course, is a precursor of the scientific management theories of Frederick Taylor that evidently continue to influence the way we work and manage people. Indeed the layout of the Panopticon from Bentham’s original work – reproduced above – bears more than a passing resemblance to a contemporary open plan office building. Indeed Bentham’s description of the benefits of the Panopticon is like a rallying call for the apparent benefits of the open plan.

Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in architecture!

The symbolism of the Panopticon is also applied to the technological surveillance of employees by the author Simon Head in his new book Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, in which he explores the consequences of a business culture still in the grip of scientific management  thinking, albeit talking as if it weren’t, but now with the technological wherewithal to apply it to minutely observe, regiment and (increasingly) automate the work people do and the way they go about it.

Perhaps this ability to mimic the open plan’s all-seeing eye in virtual space will drive the uptake of flexible working, or it may be just another tool of observation along with the building itself. Either way, our enduring love affair with the Panopticon in all its guises shows we are yet to reject the principles of scientific management.