How the modern workplace dulls creativity

3 min read

From open plan offices, to enforced corporate "fun" our anonymous blogger bemoans the creativity dulling blandness of the modern engineering workplace

There seems to be a continuing trend within companies I work for to quash all aspects of individuality in the pursuit of some kind of insidious anaemic uniformity. This has taken various guises over the years but continues to spread in both scope and  ubiquity.

Image: monkey business via

I remember that when I started in engineering our D.O. effectively consisted of “cells” of 4 boards each: 2 boards facing each other, a walkway then another two boards similarly arranged,  desks with layout tables and bookcases forming the perimeter. Each of these “cells” was adjoined by another all the way down the office. There were partitions to which reference information or personal pictures could be pinned and if not a clean desk policy at least encouragement was given to keep surfaces fairly clear although, again, personal items often found a home here. Everyone dressed smartly if informally when compared to those you may find inhabiting similar surroundings in black and white documentaries. Ties were rare but sober shirts, blouses, skirts or trousers were the norm. There was an air of undoubted professionalism but also fun and creativity – the latter I think with hindsight in no small way because we had certain latitudes. We enjoyed the minor freedoms that being respected professionals earned.

I remember too the nascent cries of “PC culture” when the edict came around that all girly calendars were to be removed. I didn't mind that as a policy, apart from personal mores the ever present call for greater numbers of women in engineering never seemed to sit happily with intrinsically intimidating and exclusionary lad culture.

Time passed and as I moved from job to job I saw a trend in the evolution of companies and, within those, departmental culture. As the wall came down in Berlin, walls came down in office blocks across Britain to allow the grouping of departments into the industrial battery hen shed that is “the open plan office.” I didn't particularly notice any increased fraternisation between departments, the entirely laudable aim usually trotted out for such moves, when compared to a well planned set of discrete offices however I did notice a lot more annoying background noise as I was trying to work. Others are more reliant on shouting into phones than us and have a correspondingly lesser need for occasional aural-centric isolationism.

Where I once felt personally invested in the company by having my own little part of it I now feel like an interchangeable drone

Each step away from defined departments was accompanied by a step towards personal homogeneity. The clean carpets, freshly painted walls and matching desks were welcome; the strictly enforced clean desk policies and prohibition on personal pictures less so. There now seems to be a general move onto the next stage of assimilation as I'm hearing of companies where the corporate uniform is mandatory throughout and all screen “wallpapers” are locked into displaying the approved company logo. Finally every department blends indistinguishably into the next and, as the drawing board has only resided in museums for some years, nothing remains to separate us from accountant, storeman, sales rep or the person organising the cleaning rota. Nothing wrong with those activities but the pride in our department and in our position within the company, whether delusional or not, seems to have bled away.

Other changes in the workplace over the past 40 years or so may have made a more immediate and quantifiable impact but I wonder what this is all for, and whether it really is the right way to go? Whatever the reality may have been, where I once felt personally invested in the company by having my own little part of it I now feel like an interchangeable drone. Without the friendly rivalry with other, clearly separate, departments the team ethos has become noticeably diluted. I see it as no coincidence that a rise in team building courses and faux fun in the workplace has gone hand in hand with this promulgation of all encompassing blandness. I used to find pride and excitement intrinsically woven into my work environment and culture, now these feelings are only evoked in a minor way through artifice.