Open Office – Debunking its Myth about Productivity

July 27, 2015

The open office concept originally started by a team from Hamburg, Germany in the 1950s, in the bid to improve communication and flow of ideas in the workplace. Removing all ‘barriers’ between employees and their bosses was somewhat thought about as a strategy to increase productivity and team work, i.e. the bosses now have direct communication to their team without the having to breakdown physical barriers. The bigger advantage of such an open office is the cost savings that come along with such arrangement. Henceforth, many companies including Google and other Tech giants adopted this open plan seating approach and it sets the tone for many others to follow; unfortunately there was a big difference: Google has private office suites and discussion rooms and at least three to four different types of office plans to foster creativity, teamwork and the culture of sharing, reviewing one another’s work without being too fixated on a permanent seating arrangement, like many other companies do!

Recent studies have shown that employers ignore calls for change would eventually ignore at their own peril. In June 1997, a large oil and gas company in Western Canada entrusted a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor the workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The employees were assessed at their satisfaction with their surroundings, their stress level and job performance as well as their interpersonal relationships with their co-workers before the transition, four weeks after the transition and finally six months afterward. The result was staggering and mind boggling: – there was huge psychological dissatisfaction among co-workers due to lack of privacy, ability to concentrate and the need to multi-task which inevitably means a drop in work productivity and the stress level increased tremendously.

Physical barriers have often been closely linked to psychological privacy. and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices remove the element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness and that feeling would be further compounded by other factors such as irresponsible workplace behaviors, ill-fitting job scope, not to mention an unreasonable and over-demanding superior.

Keeping Costs down with Open Office and Other Solutions

With rising rentals in most prime commercial areas in Singapore, the golden question is ‘how should companies balance between keeping their costs down and improving workers’ morale and productivity? One solution could be a flexible workplace arrangement where workers though in an open office are free to move into a confined work space if they need to do pre-arranged telephone calls, discussions, reviews and presentations to minimize the distraction they may be causing to other co-workers. The second approach is not to have any assigned seating at all. That way, workers are free to move around and choose where and who they wish to sit with for maximum productivity. While this may lead to a loss in ‘ownership’ of a familiar territory, workers very often get used to it once it’s incorporated into the work culture. In addition, they could move to a private area as discussed earlier for more intense discussions or meetings with other co-workers.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, flexible seating arrangement does help improve productivity and promote collaboration among co-workers. Some may want to sit next to quiet colleagues while others want a more talkative neighbor to bounce ideas back and forth with. Employees at design consulting firm IDEO are encouraged to play musical chairs at work weekly to stay inspired and boost productivity.

In future articles, we shall examine how an open office can be converted to improve productivity without sacrificing the bottom-line of a company’s profit.

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