Are Open Office Plans really effective?
Are open office plans effective in boosting productivity?
It has historically been believed that offices that have separators between individual workspaces impede productivity and creativity. Office cubicles are often derided as silos that create impermeable barriers to transparency and communication that are critical to foster teamwork. Open offices have been in vogue in many creative industries, but they’ve proliferated in the face of the digital tech revolution of the past quarter century or so. The question is: which of these approaches is really effective
Intuitively, open offices should work very well. There are no- or very little- physical barriers to prevent people from freely interacting with one another. There is a certain degree of equality that an open office plan tends to convey, which goes missing when people have cubicles or glass cabins. When people see one another or bump into one another as they move around the office, the chance interactions will help to build rapport, and therefore help the team. All of this has to boost productivity and improve organisational effectiveness, right?
Not necessarily, says the data on in-depth studies conducted on the effectiveness of open office plans. The social science behind this presents a rather different picture than what we might think intuitively, as this recent study by a Harvard professor published in the reputed Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society shows. Professor Ethan Bernstein explains his findings in more detail in this interview here. One of the things he states in the interview is excerpted below:
“In general, I do think the open office space “revolution” has gone too far. If you’re sitting in a sea of people, for instance, you might not only work hard to avoid distraction (by, for example, putting on big headphones) but—because you have an audience at all times—also feel pressure to look really busy. Indeed, all of the cues in open offices that we give off to get focused work done also make us less, not more, likely to interact with others. That’s counterproductive, at least given the rhetoric of open offices. Architects aren’t clueless to this, of course. It’s just that the cocktail of other considerations, like cost per square foot and the promise of innovative collisions, got too powerful for them to try to pull back from those extremes.”
May be there are some cost benefits to having open offices and that the cost savings are one of the key drivers that might still warrant such an office plan. However the questions is whether the cost savings really offset the other cons of open offices that science is telling us?
If you were looking to rent an office and have the office custom-designed, ask yourself this question: how much ‘openness’ do you really want to have? Are you better off having an office with cubicles and cabins?
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