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Angelia Tilby: The curse of open-plan

13 October 2017


THROUGHOUT my employed life, I did everything I could to avoid open-plan offices. Even in 22 years at the BBC, I managed never to work in one. Disaster came close when religious television was shifted from a spacious tower block in west London to a Portakabin in Manchester; but, by foul and subtle means, I managed to secure the dignity of my own cubicle, with real walls, which looked soundproof even though they weren’t.

Others were not so lucky. I can remember a desperate producer driven to defend his space by stealthily building bookcases around his desk (I think he came in at night), and filling in the gaps with huge, evil-looking plants. It was difficult to find him, sometimes, beneath the ever-spreading foliage.

In my five years as continuing ministerial-development adviser in Oxford diocese, open-plan was the norm. The diocesan offices in North Hinksey had been turned into open-plan simply by knocking down walls. They were always the wrong temperature, and horribly noisy, and many found them difficult to work in.

Fortunately, I had an office elsewhere; so I left my work station largely unattended. When I did clock in, what I most dreaded was the sound of other people’s phone calls, and the suspicion, no doubt paranoid, that everyone was listening to mine.

When the offices moved to Kidlington, the open-plan arrangement was more humane, with good soundproofing and convenient meeting rooms. By then, everyone had given up on me, and I did not think it prudent to request a work station of my own. I felt guilty; heads of department, even bishops, nobly took up their prescribed spaces, and pronounced them good.

I still suspect that open-plan offices are an extrovert plot to out-manoeuvre introverts. The reason, however, that they are going out of fashion is, apparently, that they reduce productivity. (I could have told them that). Of course, office work is a discipline, and a degree of sociability is necessary. But so is freedom from distraction. True extroverts seem to drive on through anything, multi-tasking as they do so, immersed in their own agenda, feeding off the buzz. But this, it seems, does not necessarily count as true productivity.

Curiously, like some other introverts, I have no problem with being in a busy space, as long as it has nothing to do with work. I can tap away on my laptop for hours in coffee shops, confident that nobody has the remotest interest in what I am up to. If I were still working in the diocesan offices, I would make for the spacious ground-floor café. Until open-plan is altogether abolished, it is surely no shame if God’s Kingdom is advanced with the help of flat whites and the occasional double espresso.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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