Tag Archives: Libby Sander

The backlash against open plan offices: segmented space

The Conversation

Libby Sander

Looking back on the changes in office design over the past 30 years, it is easy to see why some employees feel as if they have been subjects in a giant ongoing experiment.

For decades the office has moved from private, to open plan and more recently, no desk at all. These changes have been driven almost simultaneously by the push to reduce real estate cost and to also increase collaboration among employees.

While savings in real estate costs appear to have been achieved, the negative effects of the open plan office on employees have now been well documented. A large body of research shows these offices are noiser; employees have difficulties concentrating and are unable to hold private conversations.

The promise of increased collaboration in open plan appears to have very little evidence to support the idea. A study of more than 42,000 employees found that open plan office environments did little to increase interaction.

Given all this evidence, it is perhaps unsurprising that a recent study by Oxford Economics found the impact of open-plan office design is far greater than executives realise. The report found both productivity and employee peace of mind suffers in the open workplace. Although there appears to be a growing realisation of the negative effects, the results showed few companies have effective strategies in place to address the problems.

Another key issue in the open plan office is that it doesn’t cater to either differences in individuals or differences in the type of work that needs to be undertaken. The time workers are spending on collaborative tasks is decreasing, while time on quiet concentrated work is increasing.

In response to these issues, organisations have been experimenting with ways to segment workplaces to overcome these problems. Articles on new office design are peppered with concepts such as “caves”, “campfires”, “town squares” and “city zones”.

The segmented office is based around the idea that different spaces are needed to support different tasks and different personalities. Sleep pods, library spaces, mobile-free zones and cafes are becoming standard features in new office designs.

Employees are encouraged to move between the different areas based on what they are doing at the time. Tasks such as taking a phone call, holding a meeting, doing work that requires focus and quiet or work that needs collaboration with others are all allocated separate areas.

While seen as a positive move by some employees, the changes often don’t go far enough to allow concentrated, productive work. What if your co-workers are just noisy people in general?

Julian Treasure, sound consultant and author of the book Sound Business, suggests employees are one-third as productive in open office designs as in quiet rooms. In research I am currently conducting, many employees report that having to find a space to work each morning is tiring, while others resent having to move around to do different tasks.

The practicality of moving to different spaces, carrying laptops, power cords and other documents and materials needed to complete work can be tiresome at best and impractical at worst. The inability to find co-workers when needed appears to be another common complaint in early results of the study I am undertaking, with some employees opting out of IT-based location identification systems in order to not be interrupted.

Other key issues emerging in my research on this topic are that often the number of phone booths and meeting rooms are limited, resulting in wasted time and frustration trying to find somewhere to meet or take a call. When the need for confidential conversations arise, such issues often need to be dealt with immediately. Employees report to me that finding private places to converse in such situations is challenging, and being told to “book a room” or “go to a coffee shop” is not uncommon.

The overall office size in Australia is relatively small. As a result, offices being designed to embrace the segmented idea can end up having a gym with a rowing machine as well as the cafe space within metres of the open plan desk area.

It seems we still have a way to go. Recent research in the Harvard Business Review indicates the push for collaboration is too much of a good thing and staff are increasingly demanding quiet spaces to work where they can focus and concentrate.

With many working from home or other third places to get work done, does the office still matter?

Some authors suggest the office will die out all together. Nikil Saval, in his book Cubed, goes so far as to suggest leisure is over as the office now follows its employees everywhere thanks to the cloud.

Yet the imperative to get it right appears more important than ever. While we may indeed be able to work from anywhere, it seems we still want to come to the office.

Two-thirds of employees prefer to build relationships face-to-face, and the majority prefer to build that connection in an ideal workplace. How we create the ideal workplace remains to be seen.

The ConversationLibby Sander, Lecturer

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Collaboration: Too much of a good thing?

The Conversation

Libby Sander, Griffith University

It’s not your imagination. Involvement by managers and employees in collaborative endeavours has increased by 50% in the past two decades, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. The study found that in many companies, the time spent in meetings, on the phone and answering emails takes up to 80% of employees’ time. Collaboration is seen as a vital precursor to the production of creative ideas, problem solving and improved social capital.

In designing new workplaces, collaboration is often the holy grail against which all other office requirements are measured. Some workplaces are now so open and transparent, that it is possible for a group of employees to talk face-to-face about a work problem while seated simultaneously in the office cafe, at the work station area and on a rowing machine. At Apple’s new campus in California, the design is intended to get employees to collaborate in key interaction areas, such as the restaurant. However, if an employee’s desk is at the wrong end of the building, walking to the restaurant will mean undertaking an 800 metre trip.

The focus on open workplaces is driven in part by a desire to reduce real estate costs for organisations, but also by a belief that increased interaction leads to increased collaboration. However, a study of 42,000 employees showed there was little solid evidence that open layouts improved interaction. Other research has shown that increased awareness through being able to see others doesn’t translate clearly to collaboration. The study also suggests that most office design is an experiment, and that the outcomes beyond self-report surveys are rarely tested.

Both the processes and places where work is occurring are allowing increasingly little room for employees to undertake the solitary work required to achieve results. Between 2008 and 2013, a survey showed that amongst knowledge workers, time spent on collaborating had decreased by 20% while time spent on focussed work requiring deep thought had increased by 13%. When employees can’t focus and think clearly they actually collaborate less and become more withdrawn.

Further, the perception that collaboration adds value and improves team productivity is likely to be overstated. The Harvard Business Review research has shown that in most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. Other research has shown that a single employee in a team who constantly goes above and beyond the scope of their role, can drive team performance more than the rest of the team combined.

Employees feel increasing pressure to assist others and go beyond their scope. University of Oklahoma professor Mark Bolino told the Harvard Business Review this phenomenon is called “escalating citizenship”. The result of this is increased burnout and lower satisfaction. Employees who are seen as the best source of information and most helpful collaborators score the lowest on engagement and career satisfaction.

To address this situation, organisations need to reconsider how to balance focussed and collaborative work both from a process and space design perspective. Knowing which employees are bearing the brunt of the collaborative burden is essential. Putting up your hand to take on more and more is seen as an essential prerequisite for career advancement. Alarmingly though, given the nature of collaborative helping, this extra work can often go unnoticed, leaving employees burnt out and disillusioned. The best solution to a problem may not involve having a meeting, forming a committee, or a putting together a new project team.

The ConversationLibby Sander, PhD Candidate, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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