By Arnold Craig Levin, Managing Director Workplace Strategies, IA
A few years ago, a highly educated and well-read client began his project with the belief that he needed to place all of the organizations’ employees in an open plan work setting. After much research into open plan concepts he firmly believed that this would be the solution to facilitate and encourage the collaboration he believed his employees needed in order to improve their work processes. He cited numerous articles he had collected over time that espoused the benefits: serendipitous interaction, better collaboration, and transparency among others.
Half way through developing the workplace design strategy around this notion, he forwarded an article he had just read that claimed open office workplaces were detrimental to one’s health. In a panic, he wanted to know what the truth was. Which was the right course of action to implement and in which to invest millions of dollars?
The answer was simple: they were both in theory correct, and often a combination of both is the best answer. In practice, the only correct strategy is the one that is based on the intrinsic needs of the individual organization.
This client’s dilemma unfortunately is not unique. It is the result of selecting workplace design strategies for the wrong reasons and basing selection criteria on workplace trends and benchmarking. While trends and benchmarking provide data on what other organizations are doing, they do not necessarily provide adequate information as to how this data works for your organization. It also runs the risk of making selections on trends and benchmarking data that may prove incorrect later down the road, as in the current debate on open vs. closed work spaces.
Evidence Based Research Leads to Better Solutions
In research I conducted as part of a MPhil thesis on the influences affecting workplace design strategy decisions, the compelling findings were that among a significant population of business organizations adopting a workplace design strategy, final decisions were based on perception of outcomes rather than evidence based research. The study involved global business’ that spanned a wide range of industries, including finance, corporate, technology, professional service and government. All were organizations that had been published as adopting progressive strategies (utilizing both open and closed strategies).
- The primary influence for all of the study organizations was saving real estate costs.
- The secondary influence was a perception that a specific strategy (open plan, private office, and mobile) would provide a certain outcome.
- Follow up observations found that at least 30% of those studied changed strategies within 5 years.
From the 1980’s to most recently, open plan of some form has been the trend. With the exception of law firms, there has been a definite move away from a private office work environment to a more open concept. First with cubicles and more recently with benching. The justification for these solutions was significant savings in real estate costs and increased collaboration. Recently with the publication of Susan Cain’s The Power of Introverts, there is debate as to the benefits of open plan and should we now be focusing (literally) on private space to accommodate those introverts among us. An important debate, but one that is resulting in new trends and not on meaningful answers to the question of ‘what workplace strategy.’
A Debate Without a Singular Answer
In the July-August 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review, the authors Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks discuss the detriments of open plan workplaces (Who Moved MY Cubicle). In attempting to debunk the notion of open plan being the panacea for serendipitous collaboration, they claim that ‘casual interactions occur when 3 factors of affordances occur: proximity, permission and privacy.’ They go on to point out that ‘some studies show that employees in open plan spaces, aware that they may be overheard, have more superficial discussions’ thereby limiting the benefits of open plan.
For all of the papers on the direness of the open plan there are countless examples where open plan coupled with the appropriate support spaces have successfully changed and or supported an organization’s business initiatives. SEI, the Pennsylvania based investment company, occupies completely open work space including its CEO, Alfred West Jr.. Michael Bloomberg when he was CEO of his namesake company did not occupy an office. When he became Mayor of New York City, he carried this culture into City Hall where he and his staff occupied completely open space.
The debate was evident in a recent Fast Company online series (November 22, 2013) where two FC staffers stated their case for open vs. closed workspace settings. In one paper, Offices for All! Why Open Office Layouts are Bad for Employees, Bosses and Productivity, the author believes the open office movement is like some ‘gigantic experiment in willful delusion.’ In contrast to this, the author of How to Create an Open Office that is More Awesome for Both Introverts and Extroverts cites the problem with the FC office as ‘we haven’t approached it the right way.’ She believes ‘diversity of spaces’ is key.
So where in do the answers reside? After almost fifty years of organizations utilizing open office workplace solutions we should easily come to the conclusion that the only clear direction is choice. Providing employees with a choice of how and where they work has been a long time coming. Assigning workplaces and adopting workplace design strategies based on an either or rationale, or assignment by title and employment grade is incongruent with the needs of the majority of 21st century organizations. To continue doing so carries on an early 20th century management model (Taylor) that is not commensurate with today’s business organization.
The Importance of Choice and Culture Themes
The vast majority of clients when asked their primary project goals identify agility and flexibility as among the most desired. A choice between open or closed office solutions does not provide that flexibility. An earlier study I co-authored on creativity in non-apparent creativity organizations focused on BBC and Microsoft and sought to understand the traits and commonalities among employees that fostered creative solutions. The study found that the single most important desire among the range of employees was choice of workplace settings.
In a research paper prepared by Ericsson titled Next Generation Working Life (November 2013) the author posed eight working life themes that will lead organizations to rethink how the workplace is used:
• The power of serendipity: Exposure to other employees
• Consumerization: Individual preferences that shape employees work environment
• Re-exchange: The physical workplace optimizes exchange between employees
• Do-ocracy: Fostering an entrepreneurial culture among employees
• Two way flexibility: Adapting flexible work styles
• Cultural gravitation: A work culture that mobilizes employees
• Quest for meaning: Finding meaning in work
• From task to mission: Value creation rather than task oriented work processes
Providing choice in the workplace recognizes that individuals have different work requirements and engage in similar tasks differently. Some employees can easily engage in focus work in the open while others require more solitude. The same is true for collaboration. Providing a variety of work settings to accommodate different forms and styles of collaboration allows employees to be far more productive by being able to choose the work setting that best allows them to perform at their highest. It is not a prescriptive strategy but one that affords an organization the greatest flexibility and adaptability in order to future proof the workplace.