Tuesday, 19 November 2013


In 1787, a man called Jeremy Bentham designed a new kind of prison.  He called it a 'Panopticon'.  

In the prison guards would be able to watch inmates at any time, and inmates would never know when they were being watched.  Mr Benthan thought it would be like the guards were always watching, and that this would improve inmates behaviour, because he had observed that inmates' behaviour improved when they knew they could be seen.  Costs on guards could be cut, because prisoners would regulate their own behaviour.  

Sound familiar?

In Big Brother the Panopticon concept is pushed further.  The inmates do monitor their own behaviour, putting on the show they hope will win the prize.  There are few places to hide, but the contestants find them, because we all need a bit of time to ourselves from time to time, if only to get ready to be watched again.  We cannot be ourselves when we are constantly watched.  Writing in 1959, Erving Goffman argued that we all need a 'back stage' area to prepare ourselves for being watched.

Recently, in a piece on snooping on your children on Woman's Hour, Annaliesa Barbieri said "None of us act normally if we think we're being overlooked."

Being watched, constantly, or even just the threat of it; Not being able to trust in your back stage area, causes massive amounts of stress, and yet still, the most common form of office setup is open plan.  There are reasons for this - open plan offices are cheaper to manage and to manipulate, but they also cause stress.  People start to feel that they are not trusted; not thought to be valuable enough, without being watched by a person whose very title means overlooker - the supervisor.  It doesn't encourage creativity, or communication, it just encourages blind, unthinking, obedience.  People who work in open plan offices get sick more than those who don't (link).  And I would hazard a guess that they spend more time crying in the toilets too.

But surely it isn't necessary?  We need to push the culture to shift so that we can work where we want (and when we want), so long as the needs of the job are met.  We surely have no need now of batteries of administrators, or even call centre employees.  Couldn't they do their work without being tied to a desk, or, where that is needed, with more thought given to their humanity - higher barriers, plants and windows.  Offices which are pleasant places to be.

I once worked in an award winning office building.  It was a smart building with great heating systems, and great IT inbuilt, it had a hardly-used swimming pool, and a gym studio for keep-fit classes, it had a tiny creche where selected employees could leave their children, and it had rows of staff sitting in front of grey computers, with grey 'phones, grey dividers, grey walls, and, out of the windows they could see if they looked around their supervisors was the grey sea, the grey sky, and grey ships going by.  I hated that office.  I would do anything to avoid being in it, and I'm not going back there.

Seriously, who in their right mind would choose to spend their day in here?  Pic from here

Do you work/have you worked in an office?  What's been the best, and the worst that you've worked in?

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