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Katherine Shonfield

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I would like to share with you one of those curious office emails that emanate from nowhere and mysteriously spread like wildfire.

Bosses of a publishing firm are trying to work out why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for five days before anyone asked if he was feeling OK.

George Turklebaum, 51, who had been employed as a proofreader at a New York firm for 30 years, had a heart attack in the open-plan office he shared with 23 other workers. He quietly passed away on Monday, but nobody noticed until Saturday morning when an office cleaner asked why he was still working during the weekend. His boss said: 'George was always the first guy in each morning and the last to leave at night, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn't say anything. He was always absorbed in his work and kept much to himself.'

That it is possible to see at a glance who is a slacker, and who is pulling their weight, is a cherished myth of the openplan office. Turklebaum, we learn, was always present and worked so hard that he did not speak to anyone; that they could see him there was enough. The story reveals that the open-plan office's notion of efficiency derives directly from the factory where work output can be judged by the eye alone. But that an e-mail like this can circulate at all is proof enough that lots of people who are spending time sitting dutifully at their monitors are engaged in anything but work. Properly managed, the open-plan office culture of magnificent pretence allows you to leave a jacket rather than yourself permanently at work. Seen in this light, the fashion for 'hotdesking' is clearly not an expedient response to a shortage of space, but rather a desperate attempt to make sure your staff are alive and kicking at least once a day.

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