the man with the key can’t be missed in an open plan office

Long before I joined British American Tobacco (BAT) as a staffer, I was a journalist and one day got invited to the BAT offices by their Comms man, Henry Rugamba, to be shown round their new open-plan offices in the hope that a feature commentary would result about the progressive nature of the company.

Open plan offices were quite modern back then, and exciting. They signified a new way of thinking, and suggested sophisticated behaviour. The company with an open plan layout was forward looking and led the way in everything else. Employees of such a company were less likely to use foul language, since they would look ridiculous in front of everyone; and also less prone to the temptations that come alive behind closed doors.

It had one door leading to the entire office – thus necessitating electronic, keypad or fingerprint access. It had soft-back chairs and modern office desks, and coffee machines.

Eventually it was in those same offices that I was involved in making some drastic, staff-driven changes to management, spurred on by the same openness encouraged by having an open-plan office, but I will get to that later.

That day, though, Henry effused about the open plan layout and must have wondered why I was so unmoved by the brief tour. But you see, my office at the time was the newsroom at The New Vision, which was as open plan as one could get without working outdoors. And even though the chiefs had their territory marked by way of desk placement, we were basically equals in most other things.

Shortly after that, I started working with the Vice President, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, and was assigned a plush office on the second floor of the President’s Office wing of the Parliamentary Buildings.

I was a ‘big man’ employed at Director level and on a special contract, moreover in State House.

Within fifteen minutes, I was disconcerted by the silence and solitude of the massive room with its red carpeting, and wedged the door open so I could interact with people going by through the corridor. That way, I figured, I would quickly get to know most of the people in the building and also introduce myself all round.

Some minutes later, I witnessed someone almost suffer a heart attack as they were walking past when he realised the door was open and I was sitting right there! The fellow didn’t know whether to run forward or somersault backwards and essentially did both at the same time, with the net effect that he stayed in one place and stumbled comically.

The next person to come along was also discombobulated, and eventually one polite, elderly secretary chosen to bell the cat came over to quickly greet me and remove the wedge.

I protested and even though she firmly told me how “we don’t do this” I insisted on having my door wedged open. Twenty minutes later, another staffer walking by recovered from her shock to also try to shut the door; and another an hour later who didn’t even say a word but shut the door all the same.

I realised I was probably going to spend my days explaining to people why my door was open, and walking across the expanse of office to wedge it open again. And I gave up.

But since we spent most of our time working out of doors in the field, I realised that at the highest level of government most of the work is actually done in an open-plan environment; the President’s meetings are always out in the open, and just about anybody gets to meet him at State House, talking openly about anything that suits their fancy.

So when I eventually got to BAT as an employee, I figured I knew it all and was quite surprised when our Managing Director showed tyrannical and unpopular tendencies. It didn’t take us too long to rise up and change him – not by revolution, but through open dialogue and clearly stating our displeasure directly to him.

Open plan flattens space so employees are essentially the same. We all use the same desks and chairs. We all breathe the same space. We are not too special to look at each other. We are just workmates sharing space to achieve the same objective. It’s easier to talk and share views and ideas. Work gets done faster. The negatives of bureaucracy are fewer or less burdening.

Experience has convinced me about the usefulness of the open plan environment, and to this day I try to break down office walls so that employees can avoid closed minded environments; and so managers don’t become kings in little office castles.

Worse, closed doors allow managers to operate like little gods; their staff only entering into the shrine on occasion to receive curses or blessings depending on the strength of their sacrifice – be it a report here, an invitation card there, a problem solved or a problem being presented.

We should continue to break them down, so there are no mysterious issues behind closed doors, building fear and uncertainty outside of them; and people don’t disappear with keys and turn maniacal with the control that it gives them (including toilet keys).

4 thoughts on “the man with the key can’t be missed in an open plan office

  1. Dear Simon
    I see lot wisdom in having open plan space, it actually demonises boss can’t be seen in the face and alike. We also have an open office plan where I’m currently working but I must admit that my first time in open working environment was a shock to me. Both places are however of international institutions and I guess our local institutions especially government are reluctant to this Great Work Environment Innovation. Hope u will sell it in your new role in UBC.



  2. I particularly like the part where u say “so managers don’t become kings in their little office castles”. Some even appear to be wearing crowns n sitting on high thrones. You had to be really special to approach them


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