Office Space

I’m not going to sit here and lie to all you loyal readers and say I haven’t had “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” by the Geto Boys playing in my head after I nail yet another info lit session, coming up with the perfect keywords and a search strategy chock full of Boolean operators, fields, and parentheses to do a live demonstration in Scopus, without Scopus freezing or needing to reload the screen once. Nor am I going to lie to you and say I haven’t daydreamed about taking our Kyocera TASKalfa combination photocopier and colour printer out to the fields on campus and hitting it repeatedly with a baseball bat because yet again, my carefully plotted out handouts on APA citations (7th edition) keep having their margins cut off.

But I think of Office Space, the 1999 cult classic by King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, when I think about my new working space; I hesitate to call it an office. I shouldn’t complain; many of you may actually be jealous of my new cubicle—I get lots of natural light as I gaze across twelve feet of unkempt jungle towards the limestone walls of our library’s storage facility, I can keep up with all of the latest library gossip as I can hear every conversation(s) happening in real time, I get lots of exercise by having to move to temporary meeting spaces to take any and all online meetings, and best of all, my coworkers can gaze in the wonder, splendor, and glory of my important library work since my monitors are visible to everyone all the time.

No, loyal readers, I’m not going to lie and say that it hasn’t entailed a shift in my mindset and getting used to how things will be in my new office space for the foreseeable future, as my science library goes through a two-year long renovation. I will say it’s not lost on me that after two (or three, or four?) years, I will be moving back to a shiny, new office space in the redeveloped science library. However, before that day dawns, I’ll be spending my working hours in an open office-style working space, with bookshelves making our cubicles three feet longer.

I joke, but it really isn’t that bad. It’s just a change in working space that will take time to adjust to, and there’s been changes that make working just a tiny bit more challenging. To be completely honest, the biggest change is how it is much more challenging to participate in online meetings and have private or sensitive conversations.

Open Offices and Flexible, Hybrid Work

In Steven J. Bell’s opinion article—which I personally think is indefensible and starts with a false premise: that somehow we must accommodate open offices rather than agree they’re terrible and moving away from them as much as humanly possible—he argues in defense of open offices, asking the reader to accept that open offices aren’t going anywhere. Rather than debate the merits of open offices (which I will note largely comes from administrators), he asks, “we should focus on how to make open office environments productive and satisfying for all library workers.” Um, hard no, Steven.

I will also note Steven comes from a library where flexible work arrangements are available. How about those who have little to no flexibility and work in an open office? He doesn’t address this directly while he spills a lot of ink claiming fewer and fewer library staff are working in-person due to hybrid work. I have to think, maybe library staff won’t want to come to an open office to work; classic chicken-and-egg situation there, Steven. Maybe to Steven, there won’t be library staff anymore, anywhere. I don’t think he actually thinks this, although his article is situated firmly in the context of saving the library’s money (“Building private offices is expensive for new projects, as well as far more expensive to remove for future projects”).

Meredith Farkas wrote an insightful response to Steven, noting his article isn’t supported by the literature (contradicting what he writes), writing “the scholarly consensus on open offices is uniformly negative and the move to open offices comes with many detrimental impacts on employee well-being, organizational health, and work output.” Meredith deftly addresses accessibility issues that are much more challenging in an open office environment, compared to a private office. Contrary to what Steven claims, Meredith makes a strong case that equal working spaces does not make equity for all, even if everyone, including administrators, work in an open office. Working from home or private offices can help alleviate different accommodations.

Online Meetings and Working From Home

As I said, one of the challenges of working in an open office is attending online meetings. It’s more challenging, for sure, compared to a private office. There are bookable spaces close to me that I can take my laptop to attend. I recently was leading an online library workshop. Compared to having my two-monitor setup at my desk, screensharing off a laptop is more difficult, but not impossible. Working from home alleviates some of this, which I do occasionally when I have a glut of online meetings or instruction.

The 2024 ACRL Top Trends speak to the growing trend of hybrid work environments. Like Meredith, the authors cite scholarship that confirms the benefits of remote work: “remote work offers benefits like greater productivity and reduced stress while onsite work fosters better onboarding, engagement, and team building.” However, the authors continue to say that “[t]his new hybrid environment may also require redesigning staff spaces and setting new priorities for onsite work.” When I look at the article they cite for “redesigning staff spaces” (Fayard, Weeks, & Khan, 2021), again the authors clamour for social spaces at work, a place for “unstructured collaboration” and “impromptu conversations.” Not again!

What seems like a cliché and tired stereotype at this point, Steven notes during his library’s redesign, “the designers touted the potential benefits of open office environments, such as increased collaboration, serendipitous idea generation, or simply more opportunities for staff engagement.” I’m still waiting for all this collaboration and idea generation to happen, something that flies in the face of the scholarship that Meredith cites[1]. I’ll have to get back to you when I’m collaborating and generating ideas at a higher level in my open office.

[1] “It is a common misconception that moving to open offices will lead to increased communication and collaboration, based on the assumption that if people are in closer proximity, peers and organizational leaders will be more accessible. Not only has that not been borne out by research, but the exact opposite has been found” (Farkas, 2023).