The Origins Of The Awful Open-Office Layout

If you hate hearing your colleagues alternately annoy you and berate each other, you deserve to know the origin of your fluorescent-lit hell.

The Origins Of The Awful Open-Office Layout

The German language (Deutsch, for the purists) has apt compounds for awful things: You may know schadenfreude, joy from others’ suffering; weltschmerz, sadness arising from realizing that the world can never match your ideals; or doppelgänger, a thing eerily like another thing. But you may have not yet encountered another, more nefararious portmanteau: Burolandschaft, or office landscaping.


As this superb BBC thinkpiece sketches out, Burolandschaft was actually a revolt against Nazism. Burolandschaft was an office design movement in 1960s Germany that hoped to make office space mimic ebbs and flows of social interactions–it was “somehow organic,” with lots of plants, and, strikingly, a carpet, like the paradigm-dismantling feng shui that the futurists over at Steelcase meditate on.

But where did the damned rows upon rows of open office desks come from in the first place? BBC writer William Kremer has the word:

(Open offices) had arrived about a century earlier, when architects had started to use cast-iron girders to open up larger spaces within a building. In the American industrial boom of the late 19th century, bosses jumped at the chance to replicate their beloved factory lines with ranks of pen-pushers. Clerical workers sat at small desks in straight rows, often facing the same way–a classroom without a teacher.

And so the new open office–the “organic” Burolandschaft–led to greater worker flexbility, and encouraged “disclosure, discussion, and debate.”

Which is another issue.

More open, more problems

“Nobody can understand two people talking at the same time,” Julian Treasure, chairman of the Sound Agency and TED talker, tells the BBC. That includes, he says, the voice of your coworkers competing with the voice in your own head. Distracting.

So if your fellow office denizens are talking Game of Thrones while you’re writing email, you may end up telling your boss about why winter keeps coming.


And then there’s the opposite: Many open offices are laden with a morgue-like quiet as stress addicts toil away at their computers in un-companionable silence, making any confidential conversation excruciatingly public. And on top of that, there’s all the sharing is caring bullshittery of co-habitating an office: squabbles about what to do about air conditioning, the blinds, food at the desk, or the telephone ringtone.

Is there a solution other than grinning and bearing it?

Unsurprisingly, German and Nordic offices seem to be less awful than British or North American ones, but then again, office space in London, New York, or San Francisco is outrageously expensive, prohibiting more private spaces. Maybe the best answer is simply to buy some good headphones.

The pleasures and perils of the open-plan office

[Image: Flickr user Patrick Hoesly]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.