Open Offices and Closed Minds?

It is hard to remain objective on issues when all our technology is geared towards filtering the information we receive so that it reinforces our existing views. I became very aware of this when a recent article on the issues associated with open office plans came across my feeds. I eagerly read the article and felt a sense of satisfaction that it supported my own personal view that open office plans do not deliver on all that they promise. My introverted self felt comforted that I wasn’t an outlier in an extroverted world.

However, given that so many organisations are moving towards open plan offices, and that the financial investment is too big for them to not have considered the risk of getting it wrong, I felt I needed to consider the (uncomfortable) option that open office plans may actually work.

The advantages of open offices are typically noted as:

  • Encouraging spontaneous epiphanies amongst colleagues
  • Enhanced collaboration
  • Greater flexibility
  • More engaged and productive workforce

There are also challenges, as identified in a number of research studies about employee dissatisfaction with open office plans:

  • Noise and other distractions reduce productivity
  • Lack of personal space
  • Decreased team cohesion and satisfaction
  • Increased levels of sick leave

My search yielded a number of articles supporting the open office design, usually with the caveat that the organisation needs to be very strategic in how it is implemented, designed and the culture that grows from it. Other articles were tentative in their support, noting that it worked in limited circumstances, for example, for connected team projects. Other articles were clearly not supportive.

Interestingly, a number of articles noted that the decisions to move to open office designs were frequently made by leaders who retained private offices and were not aware of the issues and impacts of them.

So in the interests of fair play, listed below are a series of references to articles that discuss open office designs, some supportive and some not. Embedded in the articles are links to various research projects and reports that explore the consequences of open offices. But as for me, the idea of working in the midst of a crowd of extroverts causes me to break out in a cold sweat.

https://hbr.org/2018/01/sgc-research-when-moving-to-an-open-office-plan-pay-attention-to-how-your-employees-feel

https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-open-office-trap

https://theconversation.com/open-plan-offices-can-actually-work-under-certain-conditions-89452

https://www.archdaily.com/884192/why-open-plan-offices-dont-work-and-some-alternatives-that-do

https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/313034

https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/when-the-walls-come-down

By: Warrick Long, Lecturer, Avondale Business School

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