MEMO: This does NOT foster creativity!

Published on May 28, 2013 under Business

Open plan office

Open plan office setups have become the new norm in most workplaces, despite how much employees have voiced their disdain for them. We’ve heard the talk from management (who all get private offices) how these spaces foster creativity, communication, and collaboration.

The reality isn’t as sweet. Studies have shown that open plan offices merely foster stress, low morale, decreased productivity, and disease. It’s been very clear that open plan spaces are more about lower real estate costs over anything else.

The fantasy versus the reality

Whenever I’ve seen an employer go open plan, there is usually a vision of employee collaboration and communication shooting to an all-time high. They imagine a room full of employees sharing ideas at a moment’s notice, chance encounters or small talk evolving into big ideas, and impromptu meetings whenever it’s needed.

Now I’ve seen this actually small settings. When it’s a room with 5-10 people, I’ve seen this “magic”, thus showing there is a benefit to having teams working together in more open spaces. However, when it’s a room full of 50-200 employees, then that “magic” is lost to a mass of daily noise and distractions many can’t navigate through.

Outside of trying to do one’s own tasks in a noisy environment, those making the noise either are oblivious to how many they disturb, or they go the opposite direction and suddenly will be very self-conscious to how much noise they make. That “chance encounter” suddenly becomes a quick moment where only trivial information is shared and parties go back to their own corners to work. No big idea created, and many times everyone afraid to really speak up or get deeper into anything out of fear of who else might be listening.

In a big company, cliques will also happen, usually among different project/client teams. I know some employers envision the idea of the “auto company team” suddenly sharing ideas with the “soft drink team” and vice versa, but what more happens is the person working for one team will perhaps give an idea to the other team. The other team will quickly dismiss this “outsider’s” opinion and move on. I’m not making this up either.

Why open plan offices hurt more than help

Noisy open plan officeI understand in today’s modern world the need to collaborate and create in a team environment is important. I have seen the strengths and benefits of working in teams and getting multiple brains wrapped around a project.

However, structure is still essential to maximize productivity and quality of work. This is the same structure I mentioned to Generation Y in a previous article. I know with the success of group work, it’s easy to believe that a constant state of group work/brainstorming would increase success in a company, but you’re then assuming the work never changes.

In my line of work, there are times when I gather with my coworkers to share ideas and make plans, but then there are times when we all go off to our separate corners to actually do the work. This is when I and many like me need a quiet private place to concentrate...something you never get in a big open plan office.

Over a year ago, I had my private office taken away when a Vice President decided she wanted my team and other teams to be in a more open cubicle area. She mainly liked seeing the “sea of heads”, but it became a nightmare for us. Productivity slowed and I personally could not concentrate around the constant chatter of people around me, even with noise-dampening headphones.

I was later moved to another cubicle area, and again it hurt productivity. I spent most of my time with headphones on, trying to block out everyone around me. Worst was when impromptu meetings would happen right behind me. I literally then had to take a break and leave the area since it became impossible to work.

This is the problem with open plan. Eventually, you have to sit down and do work that doesn’t involve “groupthink”. You hit points when you need peace, quiet, even solitude; and a big room full of desks won’t give you that. Not unless your company will institute quiet rules similar to what you find in a library.

Now I’m sure some of you will pull up tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple...proclaiming how they make it work. I’d also like to add that not only do they have a culture behind a lot of their way of working, but also very large compensation. I’m sure if I was paid $72,000 (as well as free food and loads of perks) just to be an intern, I wouldn’t be bothered with a lack of private space.

I’ll also mention that even working a year for one of those companies will open many more suffering for a bit in this regard will be welcomed. In a regular company with a regular paycheck, it’s hard to sell this idea to people.

There’s more to come

This is not all doom and gloom, and I know open plan office spaces aren’t going to magically go away anytime soon. However, there are some great ideas management could contemplate before springing an open plan office on their employees. Next time, I’m going to share several ideas based on my own experiences on how to make an open plan office work. Stay tuned.

What is your opinion on open plan offices? Do you prefer them over a private office?

Tags: open plan office, stress, noise, work

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