Fiction

The open-plan office

DR X TREMBLED with excitement. The hall was quiet, deserted, but behind every closed door she knew that there were scientists doing experiments and developing theories, advancing knowledge. She hoped they liked her. She wanted to help them change the world.

‘And here,’ said Professor Y, ‘is the academic heart of the Department of Biological Sciences.’

He led Dr X up a platform, and together they stood and looked through a long window, as they might have at a pizza shop, Dr X thought, so customers could watch the pizzas being made. On the other side of the window was a large, bright open-plan office. The desks were modern looking, with white surfaces and green, fully adjustable ergonomic chairs. They were ordered in long, mirrored rows, each desk set apart from its side neighbours by a tidy gap of empty space, and from its cross neighbour by a green magnetic board. Between every row, a low bookshelf.

A person was sitting at each desk.

Professor Y put his finger to his lips and slid the long window open.

‘It’s so quiet,’ said Dr X, after a moment. ‘Don’t they talk?’

It was true. A person could hear a pin drop. In fact, what she could hear was the click of dozens of keyboards all at once. Someone coughed, and she thought of an orchestra – the tuning of the violins and cellos just before the start.

‘We have inspired so many others,’ said Professor Y. ‘All the departments across the university are going this way now. Other universities, too.’ He slid the window shut again.

They remained there, looking through it.

‘It’s like the Natural History Museum,’ said Dr X, and smiled. She had taken DNA from specimens at the museum during her PhD. She loved the glass-faced exhibits and the drawers full of birds and butterflies. But Professor Y did not smile back.

‘Oh, no!’ he said, face flushed. ‘We don’t do that kind of research here. We are cutting edge here, like Google. Just look what we can achieve by bringing everyone together like this. All the potential for collaboration, integrated research.’

‘Well,’ said Dr X pleasantly. She would not be insulted. ‘It looks amazing! I’m so excited to be a part of the team.’

‘Between you and me,’ said Professor X conspiratorially, ‘your role is the most important of all. We can’t just do the research. We have to get it out into the world, engage with the Others.’

He said it, she thought, as though it had a capital O.

‘The Others?’ She had never heard it said this way.

‘All the Others. Out there.’ His meaty hand swept around the hallway behind her. ‘Everyone who is not us, but who needs to know what we know.’

He shook his head. ‘It will not be an easy job. They are resistant to sharing their work. Even with the new office, they worry. They are afraid.’

‘What are they afraid of?’ Dr X asked, but she thought she knew. She had been a scientist once, too. She’d published papers, and her students had loved her, but her contract had not been renewed due to funding cuts.

‘Each other, mostly. They compete against each other for everything, no matter what we do. No matter what we tell them.’

‘So the open-plan office–’ Dr X began.

‘–is wonderful,’ interrupted Professor Y. ‘It’s superb. We bring people together. You know, just there–’ He pointed to a dark-haired woman with sunglasses pushed up on her head. ‘Just there is a plant physiologist sitting right next to someone who studies hierarchical behaviours in baboons. Imagine that! Imagine all the ideas they might generate!’

‘Do they?’ asked Dr X. ‘Do they work together?’

But Professor Y shook his head. ‘They are people,’ he said. ‘Just like the rest of us. You can bring the horse to water...’

Professor Y seemed to shake off a thought. He looked at Dr X and his eyes gleamed. ‘But you will change everything. You will be the hub of our excellent department and translate the work we do into the language of the world. You being here is going to inspire everyone.’

Dr X smiled. It was just as she’d hoped.

They watched through the window.

‘I love watching them from here,’ said Professor Y, after a minute or two. ‘It’s so peaceful. Not like it used to be. The open-plan office has changed everything. We are so productive! So interdisciplinary!’

‘Where do they meet with students?’ asked Dr X. ‘Are students allowed in here?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Professor Y. ‘They can do as they like. We encourage them to meet with anyone they want to.’

‘Is your office in there, too?’

‘Oh no,’ he said, and chuckled. ‘Once you become a professor you have a private office. You need privacy, then, for meetings and things. But enough of that for now. I want to show you where you’ll work.’

 

DR X FOLLOWED the professor off the platform and around the corner to a double-wide glass door, where he pressed a plastic card against an electronic reader. The door to the open-plan office clicked open with an audible hiss. Several people looked up from their desks, or turned in their chairs, or stared blankly over the green partitions. It was like that Twilight Zone episode, she thought, where the woman stopped time.

‘Here she is!’ said Professor Y to the room.

Dr X blushed. She gave a little wave.

But no one waved back.

‘You are vital,’ said Professor Y, quietly, just to her. ‘The work you do will be among the most important to us.’

Professor Y began to move from the doorway into the room. He gestured to each side. ‘They can work on the couches or in the egg chairs or on the stairs if they like.’

The office was one storey, yet there were three spiral staircases within it. Floor to ceiling, going nowhere.

‘It’s important to have break-out spaces,’ said Professor Y, ‘where people can go and talk, have a coffee.’

‘How lovely,’ said Dr X. Maybe they did talk sometimes. ‘Is there a coffee machine?’

Professor Y shook his head.

Dr X’s skirt rustled as she followed the professor towards the centre of the office. Her thighs rubbed together noisily.

Professor Y pointed down the line of desks. ‘Each one has a plant or a fish. They get to choose. You will, too! You wouldn’t even guess which one they’ll go for.’ He laughed. ‘That guy with the fish – he studies plants! But something alive on the desk seems to relax people. It’s important to keep stress under control.’

Dr X felt as though they must be near the centre of the room. Desks spread in all directions.

Faces.

Eyes.

‘An open plan encourages people to move around more,’ continued Professor Y. ‘Why email your colleague when she’s right over there?

‘And,’ he continued, ‘it breaks down barriers. Everyone’s the same, approachable and accessible, from the moment they’re hired. They’re all right here.’

‘Except for the professors,’ said Dr X. But the professor did not respond.

 

‘AND HERE WE are,’ said Professor Y, with a flourish. ‘Your office.’

In the centre of the open-plan office was a small glass room with a white desk and two green ergonomic chairs and a standalone bookshelf. The whole of it had the appearance of an empty aquarium.

‘But it’s so confined!’ said Dr X.

‘What do you mean? You have a 360-degree view. And, most importantly, you can get the scientists to tell you everything. Ask them whatever you want, what you think is important, and they can tell you. Even personal things,’ said Professor Y, and winked.

Dr X could feel the people staring at her from all directions.

‘You will have so much to do,’ said Professor Y. ‘You will be so busy here.’

Next to the glass door of her office was a small sign that said Engagement Officer. The professor pulled the door open and, in a very gentlemanly way, ushered her inside. Then he came in behind her and closed the door. The space was small with two people in it.

‘All the great companies use open-plan offices to stimulate creativity, innovation. Imagine the ideas all around us!’

Dr X sat at her desk, because there was little else she could do. She moved a stapler to the edge of it and examined each pen in the little cup. Black ink, blue ink, and red.

‘That’s just how you do it,’ said Professor Y. He clapped his hands together and smiled. ‘You’re going to be just perfect!’

A plant, thought Dr X, amid all that glass. She would definitely choose a plant.

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