Goffman and the office

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The Guardian has published two articles on contemporary office design in the last two days – the first a diatribe by Jeremy Paxman, “If I were king for a day, I would ban open-plan offices,” the second a glowing vision of the future as if Paxman had never spoken: “Death of the desk: the architects shaping offices of the future.” Paxman cites the satirical programme W1A as an extreme, hilarious-if-it-weren’t-actually-true example of office design gone mad, the second article offers the architect’s defence.  With no hint of irony, it also describes new offices that will have a running track for employees, because with longer hours, workers need somewhere to “let off steam,” as if Google and others are doing their employees a favour. So much for the future envisioned in the 1970s where we’d have so much leisure, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

The bit that really caught my eye was this: Philip Tidd of design and architecture firm Gensler says things are changing, and that “[y]our seniority in the organisation, your status in the organisation, does not need to be reinforced by how much space you get.” If that is the case, then I can only wonder at the ways in which seniority and status are reinforced in a building where all the stage and props have been removed. In The presentation of self in everyday lifeErving Goffman brilliantly describes and analyses how people use props, costumes, “stage” and “backstage” areas in their workplaces to “perform” their role.  Once you’ve read that, it seems hard to believe that you could take away the conventional material expressions of status and not see new ones resurface somewhere else.

When I temped in offices in between music jobs, I was staggered at the way people in apparently un-theatrical professions were prone to unwitting displays of ego (a point I have to make constantly to people who think that the theatre is a place of unbridled egotism – it isn’t, you can’t get theatre made that way). You always know which are the consultants in hospitals: they’re the ones dressed like something out of Jeeves and Wooster (the circus and medicine are two of the few remaining professional arenas where loud shirts and bow ties are still acceptable costume).  The executive may not have the corner office any more, but their status is probably even more prominently displayed in the car-park, where they’ll have one of the only allocated spaces. Or they’ll have a Brompton folding bike, and bring it into the office (something which would be frowned upon lower down the food chain, I suspect). In 2012, the intern is given the problem of storing the executive’s Brompton in a building that has no useful space to store stuff away discreetly, frittering away his time, or forcing him to leave the bike somewhere awkward.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life amazingly timeless, such good observation and analysis that you have no sense that it was written 60 years ago. It encourages you to look out for precisely those activities and accoutrements of a perfomer (i.e. a normal person, performing their everyday life) that are either designed to be missed, or of which the performer is themselves unaware.  It’s not in Goffman’s book, but one situation that fascinates me is the so-called “open door” policy that some managers operate. Can there be anything more terrifying or status-affirming than having to judge whether it’s really OK to enter a manager or director’s office when the door is always open?

See also: great article on the pain of having to dress “appropriately” by Lauren Laverne. 

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