People Management: Coaching session

Q. We're moving office and need to decide whether to go open plan or have more individual offices. What's best?

I expect you've been in an open-plan office. Have you noticed how everyone does their best to create their own space with filing cabinets, books and those omnipresent screens, covered in padded fabric and varying in height according to how much you can get away with?

Apparently, in the market for office furniture, those screens are a strong seller. They are the raw material for cubicles or 'offices'.

Some outdated management theory claims that the open-plan office helps to sweep away outdated hierarchies and inefficient bureaucracy. It's supposed to foster creative interaction and teamwork. In reality, of course, open-plan offices are simply there because they allow organisations to keep an eye on staff and save money at the same time. In conventional office systems, too much office space was taken up by linking corridors and areas behind the doors.

If you think open-plan offices are hierarchy-free zones then have another look - the types of chairs and office furniture soon give away who's important and who isn't. And it's amazing how people try to cut themselves off behind their pot plants. In some City offices I have seen, I wonder how anyone ever gets time to think - there is so much noise and bustle.

The reality is that you'll probably need a mixture of open plan and offices.

Make the decisions based on the job involved - marketing and PR teams probably benefit from being in open plan. Policy staff need space and quiet. Staff who have lots of external customers might need space in an office for meetings.

Do involve your staff in the planning process, however. Get their views and engage-ment on what will be their office space.

Finally, let's get away from this nonsense that bosses should sit in an open-plan office. This is supposed to show how democratic and accessible they are. Nonsense - I couldn't possibly do my job on an open-plan basis.

This doesn't make me any less accessible - so do avoid the thought that you'd be trendy by being open plan.

Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send questions to

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