A quick glance at our screens reveals the charade that is working in an office

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

A trader eats lunch at his desk
So often, we have to leave our desks to get anything done. Photograph: Getty Images

The irony of the modern office is that people so often have to leave it to get any work done. Privately, almost everyone accepts this; publically, we deny it. So who does the office serve? Notionally, the bosses. Yet most bosses have experienced the great workstation fraud: eyes staring fixedly at the screen, neck craning forward apparently in deep concentration, noise-reducing head - phones on, facial expression frozen stiff, body language radiating passive-aggressive busyness – all meant to convey: “Don’t interrupt, I’m incredibly busy!”

But busy doing what? Determined to escape that stifling sociality, we seek solitude’s poor relation: anti-sociality. In doing so, we deny many potential benefits of office life: chance remarks, serendipity and left-field ideas.

Imagine the following experiment. At 12 noon on a working day, a photograph is taken of every computer screen at every workstation in every office. The images from this “universal screenshot” would be submitted to a team of social scientists to calculate the real preoccupations of the office. How do people pass the time? Which questions are they urgently trying to answer? I tentatively suggest that three subjects might well top the poll. First, what was the score of last night’s sports match? Second, would my bum look big in those jeans? Third, will this holiday house fit all of us next summer?

Making mischief

That’s not to say that nothing is achieved in offices – but it’s rarely the place where people feel receptive to new ideas. This is no secret. Yet the open-plan office remains predicated on the outdated principles of the scientific management movement of the mid-20th century. As Gideon Haigh argues in his superb book The Office, the working norm “has reflected a low-trust environment, the idea that workers not under panoptical supervision would malinger and make mischief”. So the unhappy compromise continues: faultless attendance without innovation, constant presenteeism without results. “We don’t measure our success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey put it in Yes Minister.

There is a counterintuitive solution to this arrangement. Most people require two phases to do their best work: interaction with interesting people and solitude to join up the dots and allow their thoughts to develop into proper ideas – and then space to execute them.

The open-plan office works against both. We shy away from interaction but are rarely alone. Yet not talking to people at the office is like being in a bookshop and not opening any books. If we set out to engage with colleagues, there would be a point to going to the office. But social receptivity is much easier when you know it will be followed by restorative solitude. Deprived of a proper balance, the temptation is to withdraw emotionally and intellectually. The result is a kind of listless, uncreative limbo.

So here is an idea: send people home (or at least to the local café) to work and invite them in to the office to refresh their ideas. Instead of apologising when they go out of the office, people should apologise when they come in to the office: “So sorry everyone, I had absolutely no ideas this morning, so I came in to see you lot. Anyone got any thoughts?”

Some projects clearly require groups of people to be working together all the time but most professional tasks require a balance. We need high-quality solitude and high-quality social interaction – not a perpetually insipid, watered- down mixture of the two.

Even those at the top rarely get the chance to close the office door. In the 1940s, the eco - nomist Sune Carlson tracked nine managing directors. Far from enjoying long periods of strategic thoughtfulness, they spent on average eight minutes at a time alone. Carlson had previously seen MDs as conductors of orchestras. He changed his metaphor to “the puppet in a puppet show with hundreds of people pulling the strings”.

Surely we need to be in the office to attend those apparently essential events known as “meetings”? This is another misconception. Most meetings have no correlation with decision- making. Meetings are devices to rubberstamp decisions that have already been made – the skill here being that of the convener, who must steer events towards the appropriate conclusion, no matter how inconvenient the preceding narrative. Most meetings are either pseudo-consultation or fake democracy. Like management consultancy, they provide justification for decisions made long ago (and usually out of the office).

Bored stiff

The twin frustrations of workstation limbo and pseudo-meetings explain why people complain that offices are so boring. The phrase “deathly boring” is uncomfortably apt. In 2010, the epidemiologists
Annie Britton and Martin Shipley published the results of a study of 7,500 civil servants polled in questionnaires between 1985 and 1988. Those who reported being “very bored” at work were two and a half times more likely to have died in the ensuing 20 years.

If it doesn’t kill you first, the ability to sustain boredom has its professional uses. David Foster Wallace captured this in his novel The Pale King: “To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air . . . It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

“Accomplish” in this context implies climbing the corporate ladder. Those with higher aspirations, however, may prefer the story of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. One morning, he arrived at a construction site to dis - cover a sign promising he would be available “through the day to discuss details”. He tore it down. “Frank Lloyd Wright,” he said, “is never scheduled.”

The modern open-plan office was designed to encourage collegiate brainstorming and creative energy. Instead, when you abolish physical doors and walls, people find ever more inventive ways of building psychological ones.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).