One way in which organisations have tried to create a more innovative and collaborative workplace is through changes in their physical architecture. There has been a shift to open plan offices, knocking down barriers (quite literally) between employees with the belief that this will facilitate innovation and collaboration. Indeed, over 70% of employees work in an open plan today1. However, the benefits of this architectural change are almost certainly up for debate.
A social workplace
As far as I’m concerned, it’s undeniable that an open office plan is more social and helps to break down functional silos. It allows employees to meet and have conversations with people outside their immediate team who they might never speak to otherwise. In this way, employees are more likely to have a greater awareness of the projects going on within other parts of the business.
What’s more, research has found that population density is correlated with innovation2; people in crowded cities benefit from the web of interactions that urban life offers. In this regard, it seems that an open plan office can provide the external stimulation which drives innovation. What’s more, employees are far more likely to have spontaneous conversations in an open plan office with their peers, which has been described as the start of creative ideas by DreamWorks.
Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater?
However, in practice open plan offices don’t always work like that. Although open-plan offices can provide external stimulation and spontaneous conversations, the input from the environment is not always helpful. For instance, a study of 38,000 workers across different sectors found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity1. My experience tells me that this is far more likely in an open plan office.
The research doesn’t stop there. In a study of computer programmers, 62% of the highest performers said their workspace was acceptably private, compared with only 19% of the worst performers3. Equally, 76% of the worst performers said that people interrupted them needlessly, compared with only 19% of high performers.
It’s because of research like this that organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham4 has stated ‘if you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority’. Stephen Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple, has added to this: ‘You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own’ 5.
Where does that leave us?
Office settings should be ones in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and to disappear into private when they need to focus. Some organisations are starting to understand the value of both interactions and solitude during work, creating ‘flexible workplaces’ which include solo workspaces, quiet zones, to add to casual meeting areas and rooms where people can chat without affecting others’ workflow. Many of those who work at Microsoft have private offices, though these have sliding doors and movable walls which enable collaboration when it’s required 6.
In conclusion, open-plan offices are arguably a controversial step towards reaching collaboration, innovation and performance. Do you agree with the research? What do you think about where you work?
1 Hodgkinson, G. & Ford, K. (2011). The Physical Environment of the Office: Contemporary and Emerging issues. International Review of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, 26
2 Jonah Lehrer. How the City Hurts your Brain. Boston Globe, January 2, 2009
3 DeMarco, T. & Lister, T. (1987). Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. New York: Dorset House
4 Furnham, A. (2000). The Brainstorming Myth. Business Strategy Review 11(4), 21-28
5 Wozniak, S. (2006). iWoz. W.W.Norton: Great Britain
6 Michelle Conlin. Microsoft’s Meet-My-Mood Offices. Bloomberg Businessweek, September 10, 2007