It’s been THE change at workplaces in the last years: open office designs with few or no barriers between you and me, you and your boss, you and everyone else. The idea started in the US and has been largely implemented in offices across Europe. While open spaces have many advantages, my guess is that some companies will understand that these designs of workplaces are not fit for every job and every person.
The popular workplace design
Some explanations of who and what benefits in an open office:
Companies build a cost-effective office
Let’s be realistic, most companies look first for their own benefits. An important advantage is the cost-effectiveness. No doubt that it’s cheaper to build one big space than separate offices. You can also fit more people in one big room than in various smaller ones.
Managers keep an eye on their people
Another advantage is that the company keeps better control over their workers. Anyone on Facebook? Shouting at a customer on the phone? Lying about the product in the cold call pitch? Chatting too long with their colleague? Be sure that if your managers want to keep an eye on you, with an open office they can easily do so.
Extroverts are in their element
Many workers enjoy open layouts. They can chat more freely with their colleagues about the weekend, ask work related questions, wave at each other to go for a smoke, have a laugh altogether and gossip about anything and anyone. I am sure some of you can relate to that. What most of these people that enjoy offices without barriers have in common is that they are extroverts. They get energised when being surrounded by many people. They love to socialise. They perform better knowing that others can see and hear them. Depending on your personality you may or not enjoy an open office.
The downside of it
Let’s have a look at who or what suffers in an open office:
Lack of privacy and increase of stress
Mainly introverts tend to be more sensitive to noise and overstimulation on open workplaces. If you are a sensitive person, many people talking at the same time and a lot of movement is overwhelming your senses. This increases stress levels and makes you wish to escape to a more private place to work – something that may not be provided by the company.
Creativity and productivity suffer
Independent of your personality, be sure that your creativity and productivity suffer in a space where you can see and hear your colleagues all the time. Constant interruptions and a lot of noise make it very hard to free your mind and come up with something original and creative. They also cause difficulties to concentrate and lead to lower performance and productivity.
How often did you write a short and simple email for half an hour because you got three timed interrupted by a question, laughter or people coming and going? If you’re interested in this topic I recommend you Jason Fried’s TEDx talk Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work.
Manipulated by the crowd
Treating an employee as someone with individual personality traits, working condition needs and a subjective way of looking at a problem is becoming rare on modern-day workplaces. Nowadays it’s everything about team work and group brainstorming, especially on open office workplaces. While this is not bad, if the group thinking becomes too dominant, the individual’s opinion may get manipulated without him or her noticing.
Susan Cain mentions in her book Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking an interesting experiment conducted in the 50s. The experiment showed that individuals gave wrong answers to questions, because they unknowingly adjusted to the thinking of the rest of the peers. “…what [the psychologists] wanted to know was whether people conformed despite knowing that the group was wrong, or whether their perceptions had been altered by the group. […] Most of Bern’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because ‘they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.’ They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.”
The change of course
How does the future of office designs look like? Will they all stick to the trendy layout or get back to cubicles and closed offices where everyone had to knock to enter? I believe that innovative workplaces will find a new, better space. A space that benefits everyone and respects personal preferences of employees.
Diversity and choice are key for making everyone happy to work in their preferred conditions. A part of the office should stay open as it fits open activities like big gatherings, presentations and trainings. Then there should be various different spaces for private meetings, work-alone spots and rooms that boost creativity. Some companies have already started doing that. Original solutions are being provided by companies specialised in adjusting the design to specifics of every workplace. See for example One Workplace.
These layouts are obviously more expensive.
But if you consider how expensive it is to lose the productivity of employees, have them on sick leave or suffer high turnovers in human resources, you’ll think twice about it.
Update: In the meantime I’ve come across quite nice solutions for open spaces, with a lot more flexibility. Some companies are keen on keeping the noise low and enable alternatives to those workers who need more concentration or space for creativity. Hope this trend will succeed!