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An open-plan office: a modern necessity?

Jun 14, 2010 Business Daily, Management

“The topography of most large organizations – where finance occupies one floor, for example, and marketing another – reinforces the functional fiefdoms that arise naturally among colleagues who read the same professional journals, speak the same jargon, and crunch the same numbers. Geographic dispersion of operations often frustrates executives attempts to foster a shared world-view.
An open office, in contrast, can foster and maintain shared situation awareness among team members. Some of the most agile organizations I have studied, including Zara, Mars, and AmBev rely heavily on open offices, which confer several advantages…”

Don Sull, FT.com (10 May 2010)

Don Sull is professor of management at the London Business School, and writes a lively blog on FT.com. A recent posting reminded me of an experience with open-plan offices.

Many moons ago I worked for a large professional-services organisation. This venerable firm had occupied stuffy and musty old premises in an aged part of town for decades. Most senior people sat in private offices, protected by vicious secretaries. Floors were divided by function. There was a hushed air, reminiscent of a church, or perhaps a funeral home.

To its credit, this firm decided change was necessary. It moved to customised, modern offices: open-plan layouts, modular furniture, hot-desking – the works, all enabled by cutting-edge technology. So what happened? The effect on culture was dramatic. From an atmosphere that was steeped in chains of command and seniority, the firm became a place where people shot the breeze in coffee corners and listened in on conversations. This was, by and large, a good thing: it allowed cross-fertilization of ideas between teams, encouraged openness, and broke down artificial barriers.

As Professor Sull points out, open-plan offices bring many benefits. They allow for informal interactions in real time, as opposed to staged and ritualised episodic encounters in scheduled meetings and conference calls. They also allow serendipity to happen: chance encounters in common spaces, the bouncing back and forth of ideas, odd connections that can lead to breakthroughs in thinking.

But here’s the thing: many Kenyan managers can’t stand the thought of open-plan offices! They can’t abide the loss of privacy; they feel cruelly exposed when not protected by doorkeepers; they hate the egalitarian nature of open layouts; they perceive a pronounced loss of status. Indeed, at the firm I worked in, many of this ilk simply got up and left when the change happened.

Even in organisations where the majority sit in functional open-plan cubicles, the real wadosi will still be found ensconced in large, thick-walled, lavishly furnished private offices. As though only the bosses need privacy. This, I believe, is a flawed idea that needs to die out. Bosses should be in the thick of the action, close to employees and located where they can watch customers. Quiet work, thinking and confidential meetings can be conducted in spaces dedicated for those purposes.

At the famously egalitarian Google, Joe Mucheru (who is the regional leader) sits at an ordinary desk in the open with his fellow Googlers in Nairobi. At the Telegraph’s new UK editorial offices, senior editors sit at the centre of a hub-and-spoke layout, with news coming at them for editing from various directions. At Spain’s iconic fashion retailer Zara, there are no enclosed offices anywhere in the design hall. At Kenya’s Chase Bank headquarters, all managers can be found sitting in an open hall right next to their teams.

At all these companies, bosses sit where they can have the greatest impact, not where they are bestowed the greatest status. The modern business landscape does not reward fusty old workspaces or outdated ideas about hierarchy and entitlement. If you are trapped behind four walls in a large organisation, you might want to break them down and shed your mental chains.

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