Article: Open Offices: Not so open to benefits after all

Employee Engagement

Open Offices: Not so open to benefits after all

Open offices have in the last few decades have become the new hip trend to facilitate collaboration; but more recently, critics are making a case against them.
Open Offices: Not so open to benefits after all

One of the many buzzwords, which keep doing the rounds, in the corporate sector is collaboration. Organisations are supposed to interact internally and externally to be successful, and employers are going all out to ensure that they do. Although an old concept, open space offices have in the last few decades become the new hip trend to facilitate collaboration, a relaxed work-culture and are meant to improve professional relationships. Even though companies lapped up the idea, and bragged about the numerous benefits of an open office, more recently, critics are finding their case against them, and a recent Australian study makes an important point.

What does the study say?

The study found that in open offices, employee social liabilities increased (meaning they were more antisocial), for there was more distraction, lack of cooperation, distrust and negative relationships. The study also concluded that friendships and perceptions of supervisors in an open office worsened. The study, titled “Distractions and workplace angst: Are shared workspaces all they’re cracked up to be?” surveyed working Australians, about their offices and their performance and showed that shared working environments “did not improve co-worker friendships and, in addition, were associated with perceptions of less supportive supervision. The finding may be because employees who receive either too much monitoring or only informal supervision, perceive their supervision to be of lower quality than those who have dedicated supervision meetings.”

Open Offices: Pros and Cons

An open office space, shared among all the employees, or at least a team, means no cubicles, and no partitions, and therefore, no privacy. Traditionally, their benefits were supposed to be aplenty. Not only do they save costs by using expensive retail space efficiently, but also act as a catalyst to learning, problem solving and collaboration. However, it may sound appealing to have a huge family-dining-table sort of office; the reality is that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Employees who are used to working in cubicles, or are inherently introverts might find it difficult to find their beat in an open office. For that matter, even extroverts wouldn’t like a pair of eyes prying on their screens, or have their calls eavesdropped on. Furthermore, not only do the constant distractions – visual and audio – make it hard to focus on work, but every small discussion, personal or professional, with a colleague automatically becomes open to advice, solicited or not, from anyone in the earshot. This sort of a conformist behaviour, might actually hamper the benefits of this collaboration, and result in delayed decision making, for everyone might weigh in on their opinion, regarding both essential and non-essential issues.Presently, over 70% offices in America have more or less done away with the cubicle or partition system, including Lego, Google, Yahoo, eBay, Facebook and Goldman Sachs. The idea was to facilitate peer-to-peer learning, real-time problem solving and networking through these spaces, but as many are complaining, they might have overdone it. 

How do I survive in an Open Office?

Nonetheless, the study holds significance as the open office culture, and coworking office spaces are on the rise, specially in India. In fact, the quintessential start-up image conjures a visual of employees working in close proximity to each other, with laptops lined together, or lying down on bean bags. If you are about to join an open office, or are having a tough time adjusting in one, go through the following guidelines:

Pick the right spot: Make sure you are working amidst your team, or at leastwith colleagues you are on friendly terms with. If you want a relatively quieter spot, shift to the end of the row/table, or the corner in the wall - it will restrict the number of people around you.

Notice patterns: If you like silence and peace around while doing essential tasks like writing an email, or preparing the budget, notice the leanest time in the office. It could be the lunch break, or the coffee break, or any slot unique to your organisation. Keep the tasks that require high focus reserved for this time.

Take some time out for yourself: It is essential to take a few minutes for your own self everyday, to mentally take stock of things. Since you spend your entire day with your colleagues, maybe, skip the group lunch to go to the nearby park, or for a reading a book.

Create and respect boundaries: Lack of physical boundaries doesn't imply you call out to anyone, anytime. Have a tell-tale sign when you shouldn't be disturbed, and how one-word answers can be done over email or IM, rather than shouting across the hall. Plugging in headphones usually is used as a Do Not Disturb sign.

If something is bothering you, address it: When people collectively own a space, there are bound to be disagreements, ranging from petty ones like the temperature at which the AC will be set, to serious ones like, what is the best way to keep personal belongings safe. If somebody's behaviour, or a policy is bothering you, make sure you are heard, and not lament internally, or worse, trash talk to a colleague.

Be courteous: Never, ever, play music out loud, or take personal calls at your station. Use headphones, and step out for calls. If someone is taking a personal call in the vicinity, at least pretend not to eavesdrop, and politely ask them to step out in the future. Keep your place clean, and do not eat food items that appeal strongly to the olfactory senses.

Give your opinion when asked: Sure, you might be an expert in knowing which cafe would be best to take to client out for lunch, but unless you are directly asked for your opinion, keep it to yourself.Focus on your work, and your work only, and do not force yourself into conversations you are not a part of.

The Bottom-Line

At the end of the day, open offices are a reality, and it might take some time to reverse the trend. You need not get aggrieved or aggressive, if you are not a fan of the concept, but need to find creative ways to work around the situation. Employers, take note of such reports and studies, and genuinely assess the role of an open office space in facilitating collaborations. You need to bet on people, and not on systems or structures to be ensure interaction and collaborstion.The researcher of the study sums it up the best, “We are not suggesting workers should be afforded unlimited privacy and solitude. Some spontaneous interaction is needed for many types of activity-based work to succeed. Too much and the distractions will outweigh any potential collaborative benefits. Too little and the benefits are not evident.”

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Life @ Work

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