Do we see the return of the office with closed doors? I hope not.

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So it seems that Google, the example of the open-office concept, is now trying to figure out how to keep its design ideals intact, while offering its employees at least a sense of security in this two-meter-long period of time. away from each other. Apparently these measures include a number of interesting concepts, such as inflatable walls. (A GIF of one of those walls slowly unfolding almost made me spit with my morning coffee.)

These rather complex measures may lead some people to wonder if we should abandon the whole concept of open-plan offices and go back to a more old-fashioned – but in these pandemic days, safer – plan of separate offices and high-walled cubicles. To be fair, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But.

First of all, I can assure you that I myself am not a big fan of the whole open office concept. As someone who has worked from a home office for many years, and before that in a traditional office environment, while the camaraderie that the open office encourages is nice, I don’t like the need to run to a phone booth with a closed door. “Every time I receive or have to make a personal phone call – or rather another phone call. I don’t like hiding in a cubicle in the ladies room when I’m even a little upset or angry. In fact, before the pandemic hit, I was strongly tempted to take a photo of the 1928 film Public or 60’s The apartment at my desk to show that open-plan offices are not exactly new in our time.

The open office circa 1928, in King Vidor’s classic silent film Public.

On the other hand … One thing I do for sure not missing out on the traditional office structure is what having a private office represents. It was status. It showed what your boss thought of you and your potential. It represented your place in the organization – for you as well as for everyone else. In The apartmentFor example, Jack Lemmon plays an employee who promises his own office if he allows executives to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. In other words, he is very tempted to compromise his own ethics in order to acquire this status symbol.

But The apartment is just a movie. There are also real-life examples.

Years ago, a newly appointed editor in chief at a publication where I worked decided he didn’t like me but didn’t want to look bad by firing an employee who had a good track record at the company. So he transferred me from a private office to a booth next to the sales department, where I had to try to do my job while the man next to me was yelling into his phone all day long. I, and everyone I worked with, recognized the significance of the move. It was meant to tell other workers that I was a pariah. It was meant to tell salespeople and PR reps that I was disrespected by my publication and that they might have to be dealing with someone else. It was meant to convince me to leave.

Today's open offices are somewhat different.

A more current type of open office.
Photo: Dami Lee

In a truly open office, where no one (not even the editor-in-chief) has their own office, this is no longer an issue. There are, of course, other ways to abuse an employee – many different ways. But using the office as an indication of your status within the company can be incredibly toxic. If Google and other current companies can combine the better features of the open office system with an increase in privacy and security, it will gain more power – even for their weird, bloated walls.