Tina Lewis Rowe

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Bullpen Offices Require More From Employees and Managers

What About Those Bullpen Offices?

Bullpen office design is based on the open offices of newsrooms and other businesses where frequent communication is necessary and privacy is unnecessary. (The layout was developed when the only way to communicate was to talk directly.)  

It has also long been used in secretarial areas where the “pool” is clustered in one big room, away from the private offices of those who give them their work. Many detective squads have that set-up as do other office-based workplaces.  The difference is that it used to be there was an illusion of space because desks were a bit larger and frankly, people were usually more courteous than is the norm in many workplaces today. It also works acceptably if there is some visual space in the overall work area and if there are at least half walls between desks.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said if he was President he would establish a bullpen style White House office, like the one he now has, pictured below. He says he can’t understand why someone would want to be shut away from the action. I’ll comment on that in a moment.


A 1981 Prediction: I recall taking an office design class in 1981 and touring a business that planned offices all over the country. They had cute little model offices in various configurations, among them an open office. As the lead designer talked about the future of office design he pointed out the expense of walls, outlets and lights and how much can be saved by having everything in one big room, with a few conference rooms.

One of the other students, who had his own office, said he wouldn’t like that because he liked having privacy, even if he only had a tiny, dinky little office. He said he liked to be able to concentrate, handle business calls in private and work with clients in a more private setting. He also said he liked to be somewhat insulated from the various personalities that would be hard to handle up-close, all day. The planner said, “Well, maybe you would be willing to pay back the company the hundreds of dollars extra they spend on your tiny, dinky little office so you can have that privacy. Hmmm?”  (Where is a chain saw when you need one?)

Right before we walked away from the model our teacher said she thought the open office concept might help if employees needed to solve problems together. A second designer–nicer than the first–said, “That’s how companies will sell it anyway.”

Problems with bullpen offices: I doubt there is anything you or I can say to change a decision about having a bullpen office if the decision-makers are convinced it’s cheaper and better.  However, since I spend a lot of time giving advice about workplace issues on the Ask the Workplace Doctor website, let me at least say that if such an open office design is used, more is required from employees and managers to ensure an effective and tolerable workplace.

Considering Mayor Bloomberg’s admirable but not altogether applicable bullpen office preference, I’ll suggest that I doubt he spends eight to ten hours sitting at his desk every day. He’s not on a timeline to design a website, do an audit, issue checks, counsel with employees, talk with clients or handle the arrangements for a conference. If someone becomes a thorn in his paw, day after dreary day, he can do something about it.

I also will bet he isn’t surrounded by coworkers who do any of the things people write to the Workplace Doctors to complain about: 

Have hygiene deficiencies of ALL kinds, hum incessantly, belch, eat smelly food, crunch ice, sigh and sigh again, pass gas several times a day and blame it on someone else, tap fingers, cry, talk about the same personal problem every day, moan in pain, giggle, pray, say one pet phrase repeatedly, slam drawers, listen to talk radio and comment, post offensive or irritating items, use profanity, wear too much perfume or after-shave, pick their teeth or their nose, gossip, complain, brag, lie, flirt, talk loudly unless they’re talking about the Mayor, in which case they whisper just loud enough for him to catch on, interrupt his private conversations, interrupt his private conversations to correct something they misunderstood in the first place, use weird voices and pretend to be various TV and action hero characters, talk to friends about him in code (“I sure wish we could get rid of the nasty odor in here.” “Yeah, let’s go to a conference room and see if it smells better there.” “LOL!”), give themselves manicures or pedicures, squirt water from a bottle into their mouths every few minutes, spit into the trash can every few minutes, cough, sniff, blow their nose or snort every few minutes, or any combination of any of these or other annoying or gross things.

Employee and manager requirements for bullpen offices. At the very best, open offices need to have enough space and privacy that people don’t prefer to work at home or find reasons to use conference rooms just to get away from noise and confusion.  Employees need to monitor themselves to ensure their work space isn’t distracting and that they are good office citizens and decent human beingsThey also need to manage their time better, since there will almost inevitably be more reasons to pause and also more need to keep refocusing. 

Managers need to monitor the work environment and immediately intervene to stop problems before they can start or become worse.  There will need to be a clear understanding of the differences between team and individual work needs.

A workable alternative: Those of you who are Parks and Recreation fans may recognize this bullpen set from the 2010 season. There is the illusion of private space, even though one office leads into another. Sadly, I don’t think this is what current bullpen talk is all about.  Look at what an office planner might consider to be wasted space.


What do you think about the the idea of a Bullpen Office?

February 12th, 2012 Posted by | Life and Work | 14 comments