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Open-plan offices are great – aren’t they?

Jun 03, 2013 Business Daily, Management

“A well-designed office is a happy office. As facilities managers strive to save space and cash, they’re reshuffling desks and fiddling with temperature gauges. All of which has an impact on workers’ performance. Open-plan offices may make some kinds of collaboration easier, but are they more conducive to productivity? What’s the most irritating distraction? And are those state-of-the-art workstations actually more comfortable?

ANA CODREA-RADO Quartz (22 May, 2013)

When I was a young man in my first job in London, I worked in an open-plan office. I loved it. It was laugh-a-minute listening in on people’s conversations, shouting thoughts into the air, listening to the replies, sharing wisecracks. Happy days.

Then I was suddenly seconded to the UK’s Monopolies & Mergers Commission (now called the Competition Commission). Here, I arrived to find myself in my own private office. All alone. Plenty of time to work in isolation and think deep thoughts.

I hated it, and couldn’t wait to get back to the noisy madhouse that was my home-base office.

Quartz recently reported on various surveys done on the effects of workplace quality. These days, more than 70 per cent of US workers are in open-plan offices. These open setups reported 62% more sick days on average than one-occupant layouts (as germs spread more easily). Reduced motivation, decreased job satisfaction and lower perceived privacy were identified as factors negatively affecting productivity in open-plan environments. Apparently, overhearing conversations in the office is very intrusive and distracting for many workers. Workers who were moved from personal offices to open-plan layouts reported more stress, less satisfaction with their environment and less productivity.

What’s going on? To understand, please note what I specified as I opened this column: I loved open-plan WHEN I WAS YOUNG. Then, interaction and exchange was everything. We were all fresh-faced and exuberant, learning our way in the world, developing a social life. Open-plan beat closed-door every time.

Today, wild horses would not drag me into an open environment. Now that my interest in all-day yakking with my peers is long gone, my work space has got to be quiet, serene and private.

That’s the key. The negative effects of open layouts noted in the recent surveys were way more pronounced for older folk (those over 45, if you’re counting). Older people are far more sensitive to noise, intrusion and temperature differences than their younger colleagues.

Note also that my experience was in a time that predated mobile computing devices, instant messaging and social media. These days, people socialize and interact electronically all the time, and have less need for constant physical proximity.

The quality of the office environment really matters: some studies suggest that quality improvements yield between 5% and 15% increase in productivity. That’s a LOT. So those in charge of designing and maintaining office environments should really pay attention. Too many of us try to pack in as many workers per square foot, fit the cheapest furniture and equipment and the most basic washrooms, and expect people to just get on with it.

Don’t do that. Think carefully about the effect of space, temperature, lighting, acoustics and proximity. These things have a pronounced effect. Assess the age groupings of the people you’re trying to house. Offer a variety of spaces, and detach them from status. One size and shape does not fit all, even though it would fit your cost containment programme nicely.

Of course, open-plan can be an extremely effective tool for promoting behavioural change – as this column has argued before. If more collaboration is needed and if secrecy must be avoided, closed walls don’t help. If you’re trying to change the culture of a hide-bound government ministry, for example, open-plan would do wonders in promoting transparency. But you would still need many quiet, private spaces.

Offices house thinking humans, not battery chickens. If you want more than meat out of them, you have to provide them with an environment that makes them comfortable and productive. One size and shape rarely fits all.

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