Hell as Workplace: Open Floor Plan or Cube Farm?


A vision of Hell from Pieter Huys ©Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis

Rather diverse topics tend to collide here at Stuff to Blow Your Mind, such as my research into workplace environments and belief in Hell.

We stand at a crossroads between the age of the cube farm and the age of the open floor plan. On one side we have the environment of "Office Space" and on the other Entertainment 720 from "Parks and Recreation." Will it be a little grey box of isolation or a wide-open, team-building bullpen? As we cover in an upcoming podcast episode, both approaches have their pros and cons. I'd like to share them with you using a much older example.

Detail from a mural in the Byzantine Church of Panayia.
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty

Welcome to Hell, a favorite subject of artists throughout history. In Western art you generally encounter Hell as an open floor work environment. Sure, you'll encounter designated boiling areas or a good old-fashioned stabbing barn as seen in the above Pieter Huys painting. But generally one demon works alongside the next, flaying and roasting the damned in a chaotic open space.

And yet, as Alice K. Turner points out in "The History of Hell," Eastern-influenced Byzantine art often depicted the damned in isolated boxes. As you can see to the right, you might pack two or more sinners in each cubical, but presumably a single demon handled the necessary chain-and-hook routine.

So let's break down the pros and cons:

Open Floored Hell

PRO: Greater collaboration. What's the best way to force-feed a Dulcinian hot coals? Brainstorm it! PRO: Cheaper overhead. Fit more sinners and tormenters into less space and without the cost of dividing walls and moats. PRO: Unassigned seating means teleworking tormenters don't virtually take up valuable space. PRO: Reduced internal e-mail. Just walk that still-beating heart over to the finance desk, why don't you? CON: More interruptions. Can't a demon skin a blasphemer in peace without being asked to sign Scarmiglione's birthday card or having to listen to coworker flay an Apollinarian? CON: Suffer the solitary worker. Sure, it takes four demons to draw and quarter an unsaved soul, but what about the individual achiever? Does my eye-scooping have to suffer?

Cubical Hell

PRO: Individual Expression. Decorate your walls with whatever still-dripping skins you like. Make it fell like home. PRO: Increased Focus. The privacy you need for intense, creative mutilation. PRO: Designated workspace. You know, for when you need to leave a partially-disemboweled heretic out over night. PRO: Privacy. Take a quick private call at your desk rather than having to venture outside into limbo for it. CON: Reduced interaction. When's the last time you asked Malacoda about his day? CON: Confining walls. Who's imprisoned here, me or the sinner I'm whipping? Oh, we both are? Well crap.

So which do you fancy? An all-out orgy of group torment or the personalized care of a Byzantine demon?


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.