Most offices are cluttered, dull, too open-plan, too cold or too hot, impersonal, ugly – but the alternative does not have to be “install slides and bean bags”. Or stand-up meetings, walking meetings, hot desking, clean desks, stand-up desks, email bans, gender-neutral loos, shoelessness, trampolines.
We moved to a lovely new building with little “meeting areas” scattered about: a few chairs, a table and a rug in “jolly” colours that took up space, were never used, and were quickly replaced by desks and cupboards. We were left with a large figurative sculpture in a corner.
The BBC in Salford has “thought wheels” for meetings – lime-green padded caves like something out of 2001 A Space Odyssey.
I think I've found the world's single worst workplace team building activity: Compulsory co-worker cuddling sessions in special tents. (Joanna Holman @joannamuses)
Doing without email because reading emails takes too long. Remember memos? And how do you arrange a meeting without email?
A friend's office has abolished phones and replaced them with “Skype for Business”.
New Broadcasting House has a no office policy and the green room is a corridor. Mar 2013
An internet company which wants staff to feel a bit more excited when they turn up to work has changed its office layout to make it more fun. A helter skelter to get between floors, an indoor tree house for meetings, a cinema and swings have been installed at the new headquarters in Southampton for web hosting firm Peer 1. (BBC 2013, pictured)
Innocent has consciousness raising every morning in an astroturfed canteen with a slide.
Chiat Day... went through an ill-fated upheaval when it tried to do away with cubicles and desks in favour of absolute freedom and flexibility. The problem was, it was 1993, and blackberries were still nothing but a fruit: the technology simply didn’t exist to support founder Jay Chiat’s dreams of a virtual office. People often couldn’t find each other. One employee was known for trundling around the building with a little red wagon laden with papers; others, desperate to secure one of the few useable desks, resorted to sending their assistants in to claim them at 6 in the morning. Within three years, the grand experiment had been scrapped, and Chiat himself had sold up and left. (Independent, 2013)
Ferrari is limiting the number of people employees can address emails to. (It thinks this will be “more efficient”, 2013.)
Amazon gave all its employees desks made out of old doors (to save money). Many got carpal tunnel syndrome.
Earlier this year, the … Barbarian Group unveiled its “superdesk”: one huge continuous single desk for all 125 staff… Like many such office innovations, it’s tremendously forward-thinking, and totally undermined by psychology research. (Oliver Burkeman Guardian 2014. And railway stations have done the same thing with benches, 2023.)
One Scandinavian firm introduced hot desking. Staff find each other with a GPS system that shows you which floor someone is on. It doesn’t tell you where they are – you have the excitement of searching the floor for them. And you can only stay at any one desk for an hour! And they aren’t allowed to call it hot desking!!
All the bins have been removed from a friend's office. Staff are supposed to take all rubbish to the tea point, but actually they use plastic bags.
We found that many organisational restructuring and change initiatives achieve very little apart from making employees miserable, building the reputations of a few managers, and fattening the coffers of consultants. (Guardian Dec 2016)
The Scandi-noir series The Bridge sent up the syndrome with a new manager who gave ridiculous instructions while reclining on a curved sculpture. Eventually staff rebelled and he was the one who left.
A new manager aims to “shake up” an organisation, destroys everything, destabilises everybody, the people who really run the place quit and it implodes. Manager goes off and does the same somewhere else. (Independent July 2013)
New owners bring in “real salesmen” who nearly destroy the business.
In the book 7½ Cents by Richard Bissell the manager won’t give the workers the pay rise they merit, or update the aged machinery, but spends huge amounts of time and money on motivating his sales force. (The book became the musical The Pajama Game.)
You are working with colleagues when three men in suits carrying clipboards enter your office. They look around the room, ignore you, consult their clipboards and confer.
Suspiciously well-dressed guys with clipboards started dropping in... (Article about the demise of the video rental shop)
You catch sight of the plan of the new offices your firm is moving into, and you notice that there aren’t enough desks for everybody. In our lovely new building, our meeting room didn’t have enough chairs for everyone to sit down. Nobody ever imported extra chairs. Somehow we couldn’t do that. If we suggested it, we were discouraged in an undertone. At least in the old place there had been cupboards to sit on. Within a few years, most of us had been made redundant.
Your desk is repositioned in a corridor. And then it disappears.
One colleague became strangely obsessed by a new floor plan, and charged about with drawings of “modules” in different shapes where editors, subs and reporters would sit. The only point of this was that the exciting, ergonomic new floor plan didn’t have enough seats for the current staff; the chairless would be made jobless. (Andrew Marr, My Trade)
A group of people has worked together at an organisation for many years. New management come in, and bring in new team members. The original members see their views ignored, their office space reduced, their work given to other people, invites to pub drop off until one day they turn up and there’s someone else at their desk who looks about 12. It may take several years, and the original team fight a constant rearguard action and form whingeing circles instead of taking action. (And their plans are never “Let’s streamline procedures and become more efficient”.) They are offered demeaning roles that the management knows they will turn down. They realise that they are pretty much being told to turn them down.
Update, 2020. As a result of COVID-19 and the lockdown, many firms have discovered that they can function perfectly well with most people working from home most of the time. They are planning to reduce their office space, while most of their staff will come in one or two days a week. Workers will be happier, once we've redesigned houses to include an office. We'll find new uses for city centres, stop building so many office towers, and hot-desking will be a thing of the past.
Update, 2023. Depressingly, many firms want their staff back in the office all the time and the government thinks this is a good thing.
More syndromes here, and links to the rest.