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How to cope with an open-plan office

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Architects have historically been enthusiastic proponents of open-plan offices, possibly because: a) they tend to lead very boring lives and get their kicks from eavesdropping; b) drawing boards and associated paraphernalia are too bulky for traditional offices; and c) it saves them the effort of designing partition walls.

The sad truth is that the open-plan office does not work. In friendly offices it simply encourages people to engage in mindless chatter and play computer games over each other's shoulders. In more formal offices, an ominous silence envelopes the office, and staff descend into collective gloom. There is, of course, a middle way - the introduction of 'background noise', which simultaneously lessens the impact of embarrassing silence and screens the noise of conversation. The advantage is that this passes off the hum of air-conditioning, computers and unidentified electrical faults as a deliberate design feature. The downside is that staff spend their time complaining about imaginary ear infections, straining to hear colleagues'conversations, and being convinced that everybody is talking about them. Before you know it, you are working in an office full of paranoid hypochondriacs.

There is, in fact, only one solution: to make it company policy that all telephone conversations, meetings and informal chats should be held in the pub next door.

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