Recently, I’ve seen a lot of articles talking about the backlash to the ‘open office’ concept that has been so trendy and quasi-avant-garde over the last few years.
Allegedly, the idea behind the open office is to create an ‘environment of collaboration,’ in which employees can have spontaneous conversations (presumably about their work) and embrace team-driven approaches to problem solving. Proponents of the open-office concept point to the success of many Silicon Valley-located tech companies and their large, open office settings, making the (flawed) assumption that one causes the other.
An article in Fast Company recently argued that this tech-company-envy was really at the core of many organizations’ desire for an open plan office, quoting the CEO of a workplace analytics company: ‘when you dig down, it’s because this is what the workplaces look like at a couple of highly successful tech companies.’
There’s a school of thought that says that they’re driven by cost reduction as well – after all, you can pack a lot more people into a given space if you don’t have to trifle with such seemingly unnecessary luxuries as walls, doors, and desks wider than forty inches!
Additionally, I’ve seen arguments in favor of open office layouts because they help with recruiting, as they allow prospective employees (often millennials) to see their peers engaged in ‘fun work,’ often playing games and chatting during their workday.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as organizations seek to find a ‘magic bullet’ to solve many of their problems and suddenly the ostensible panacea of ‘open office’ arrives to whisk away the drudgery of work and transform the office into a hip, exciting, low-cost environment replete with ground-breaking collaboration and a steady stream of highly talented applicants beating down the door to join this exciting, modern team.
The truth is, employees generally hate open offices, less work gets done in them, and we’ve known since 2009 that they’re likely harmful to worker health.
But there’s another pitfall that they’ve created, one that I think is staggeringly underestimated, and paradoxically is built upon one of the very principles that open offices were designed around.
Now, I detest the word collaboration. It’s become a ridiculous buzzword, and there are few things I like less than buzzwords. However, the idea behind collaboration is a good one: collective problem-solving is almost always more effective than individual problem-solving, so I can very much understand the desire to encourage that practice.
Here’s the problem: open offices don’t create more of it…they create less.
This seems counterintuitive – after all, if we’re all in one big room, we can easily talk to one another, easily figure things out, and easily work together.
The thing is, we’ve always had these spaces for collective problem solving. They used to be called ‘meeting rooms.’
However, as offices have gotten more and more open, the ability to find a meeting room gets harder and harder – I was recently consulting for a technology company (with an open office concept, naturally!) where the ability to find a meeting room that was available was a running joke. They had all been taken. Why? Because meetings of just two people, that used to be held in someone’s office, were now being held in a conference room.
There are two second-order effects of this lack of available conference rooms, and both are insidious ways that true collaboration declines.
First, instead of having an actual meeting, where people arrive, discuss a topic, come up with a solution, and depart, this organization (and others I’ve seen) used a chat thread to discuss the idea, allowing people to comment and share information textually, rather than verbally. It’s a lot easier to hide out on a chat thread than in a conference room where we’re all batting ideas around, and it’s a whole lot easier for the context and subtext of a statement to be lost when it’s written, rather than stated. Written communication is no substitute for verbal communication.
Second, because of the lack of availability of areas to have conversations, most conversations were held in close proximity to other employees, creating distractions and disruptions. How did these distracted, disrupted, and displaced employees react? They put in earbuds or put on their noise-canceling headphones, and there are few things that create a greater disconnect from the collective than auditory barriers. Think about the way you feel when you get on a flight and put those magnificent noise-canceling headphones on. You aren’t hearing that baby crying, you aren’t hearing the guy in the middle seat a few rows back blathering on about how ‘there’s a better way to board this plane,’ and you’re able to be completely alone with your thoughts.
And that, in a work setting, can be very damaging to effectiveness.
The most effective meetings I was ever involved in were the operations planning meetings I participated in while I was deployed in Iraq. They were intense. They were confrontational. They were often uncomfortable, as my peers and I argued for courses of action we favored and pointed out the weaknesses of alternate approaches. That ‘marketplace of ideas’ approach, however, was inextricably linked to the high-quality outcomes of those sessions.
Imagine if we had held those meetings via a chat thread, or with our headphones on. We never would have been forced to consider alternate points of view, argue our perspective, or consider immediate feedback, all skills which facilitated success.
I’ve come to discover that there’s a pretty strong link between open offices and groupthink, and to get the real benefits of a collective approach, groupthink has to be as anathema to a workplace as walls and doors seem to have become.