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How open-plan offices are killing collaboration in your workplace

Most adults know exactly what they need to do their best work and it’s up to the workplace to leverage this, explains culture expert Colin D Ellis.

Open Plan Offices

For the last 12 months, many employees (not those on the front line helping people to deal with the virus) have been working from home. In order to change up the energy, we moved rooms or else went to socially distanced cafes. People Zoomed each other, collaborated on Teams, did stand-ups via conference call, and when they needed to focus, they removed all distractions and concentrated on the task at hand.

What many people will have found refreshing is the changing nature of interactions and the hope that this has offered when the return to the office finally happens. Then their heart sinks when they remember that they’re going back to an office construct suited only to the chatty employee where all the walls to privacy are removed and interactions are expected to flourish as a result.

The open-plan truth

Let’s start with a fact. Open-plan offices, as a single catch-all mechanism to improve collaboration between team members, don’t work. The initiative that many organisations undertook that they hoped would get people away from their desks and increase face-to-face collaboration time actually reduces it by 73 per cent according to a Harvard University study of a Fortune 500 company. Not only that, but it found that as a result of moving to open plan, email increased by 67 per cent and the use of messaging tools by 75 per cent.

Offices where people have a desk that they call their own will likely decline post-COVID. Even prior to the virus, attitudes towards fixed desks were changing. The Wall Street Journal reported that by 2021, 52 per cent – slightly more than half – of companies they surveyed planned to replace “reserved” desks with “first-come, first-served desks, plus additional workspaces with names like huddle rooms and touchdown spaces”.

While these office-based workspaces work for some, they most definitely don’t work for others. In the rush for greater collaboration, cultures are undermining concentration and productivity by creating spaces that suit one personality type or workings style over another.
Unsurprisingly, research shows that when people aren’t able to focus on a task without interruption or distraction, it undermines the quality of their work. Also, when they can’t concentrate, they communicate less. So it’s a lose–lose scenario for everyone.

If a quiet work environment isn’t provided, some employees will simply create one by putting on headphones to block out the distracting noise, replacing it with motivational noise instead. Pre-COVID, I saw this scenario in almost every client environment and it undermined culture as a result.

However, one positive cultural aspect to come out of the pandemic is that old-fashioned ideas and behaviours towards flexible working have now been removed. This means that an extension of the office has been created and thus, another option for productive work has been created. Yet like every other space, it still has to be set up to keep distraction to a minimum to enable maximum productivity.

The right return to office response

When thinking about the return to the office, organisations would do well to remind themselves that working environments should never alienate the people who work in them. Rather, they should be a haven for behaviour that inspires productive work, while recognising that different personalities like to work in different ways.

I’ve long been an advocate of work-from-anywhere approaches, in which organisations create a variety of workspaces (in and out of the office) that suit different work styles and requirements and where people can be trusted to choose which one best allows them – at any given moment of their day – to be the most productive version of themselves. This means a combination of private, quiet, group and social spaces that can be used by anyone at any time. If you want a permanent desk, no problem. If you want to hot desk, likewise. If you want to work from home, go for it. Just don’t force a person into a space that won’t enable them to be productive.

Most adults know exactly what they need to do their best work; it’s up to the organisation to provide for these needs. As people drift back to the office, the provision of a range of spaces in this way plays to the strengths of the staff and ensures that headphones aren’t required to ‘block out culture’.

Open plan is one such space, but it’s not the only space.

Colin D Ellis is the best-selling author of Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work and helps organisations around the world transform the way they work.

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