Decades ago, casual conversations were looked down upon in the workplace. These informal interactions were seen as a distraction and a waste of the company’s dollar. However, times have changed.
Organizations all over the country have discovered an increased need for collaboration, which has caused companies to rethink where employees work. Open offices are becoming the norm, with over 70% of U.S. offices having an open floor plan. Gone are the days of closed cubicles and with good reason, as open offices facilitate the conversations that drive teamwork.
However, open spaces come with their own problems.
In a previous eBook about introverts, The Wallflower That Could Supercharge Your Business, we saw that open concepts actually damage attention spans, creativity, thinking, and satisfaction. With no walls to separate people, open floor plans were associated with high blood pressure and increased turnover. Lack of privacy increased employee stress and reduced morale. Not to mention the increased noise from phone calls and chatter.
While collaboration was at an all time high for those who opted in to an open workspace plan, human nature came through and distraction hurt productivity for a number of people.
For open spaces to work, Harvard Professors Anne-Laure Fayward and John Weeks state that, “a space may or may not encourage interaction depending on how it balances three dimensions, or ‘affordances,’ that have both physical and social aspects: proximity, privacy, and permission.”
Let’s take a look at each of these dimensions and see how keeping them in mind will help your efforts.
The further people are from each other, the less communication they have. MIT organizational psychology professor Thomas Allen discovered a negative correlation in frequency of communication between engineers as distance between them increased. While proximity deals with physical distance, it is also about how people interact within a certain area. It’s equally important to coordinate shared spaces (restrooms, stairwells, and coffee machines) where people can ‘run into’ each other as this will facilitate the sharing of ideas and other informal interactions.
Privacy is very important when it comes to open spaces. When you take down walls, it’s harder for people to converse comfortably. At a minimum, people need to be confident that their conversations won’t be overheard or intruded upon. Open spaces need to built with acoustic and visual contact in mind. The Harvard researchers emphasized the importance of true privacy, the idea that you can regulate how other people are able to interact with you. While this may seem illogical, casual conversations won’t thrive when people cannot control their interactions.
Culture plays a primary role in what’s permissible. How do you signal ‘I’m busy’ or ‘Do not disturb’? Can your employees move to areas that have that signal that they need privacy? There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, so it’s important to provide a variety of spaces that allow employees freedom how to interact and work how they want. This is vital, as Gallup reports that “employees who have the ability to move to different areas at work are 1.3 times more likely to be engaged than other employees.” (Gallup)
Permission demands proper attention when designing your office floor plan. Depending on the space and industry in which you’re working, what’s deemed as acceptable may vary. For instance, in the Harvard Business Review, the authors observed a consulting firm where work space was limited to the employees’ desks. People coming and going through the coffee lounge rarely stayed for a conversation, as company culture “did not give them permission to stay and talk.”
When outlining what’s permitted, it’s critical that management is fully aligned, as any wavering on what’s allowed will disparage any sort of casual communication. Even the smallest amount of negative body language could affect employees.
There’s a lot to think through when trying to make your workplace more efficient. The 3Ps are essential, but there are other things to mull over that have more to do with employees themselves.
One thing to recognize is their human nature. Even if it’s something as small as claiming a chair as ‘theirs,’ having their own personal workspace can help engagement. Gallup reports that “employees who have their own space are about 1.4 times more likely to be engaged at work.” It’s normal for people to get protective of their ‘space,’ so it’s up to management to make sure the process is as smooth as possible.
In conclusion, transitioning to an open workspace requires a lot of planning, as the 3 Ps, proximity, privacy, and permission, all need to be addressed before any sort of improvements can be made.
Already made the move to an open workspace? What kind of experiences have you had?
Kaufman, Lindsey ; Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace; https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/30/google-got-it-wrong-the-open-office-trend-is-destroying-the-workplace/
Perks; The Wallflower That Could Supercharge Your Business; http://resources.perksww.com/ebooks/the-wallflower-that-could-supercharge-your-business-e-
Fayard, Anne-Laure and Weeks, John; Who Moved My Cube; Harvard Business Review; https://hbr.org/2011/07/who-moved-my-cube
Allan, Thomas J.; Architecture and communication among product development engineers; http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/2682
Mann, Annamarie; How to Make an Open Office Floor Plan Work; http://www.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/212741/open-office-floor-plan-work.aspx
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