There is a New Yorker cartoon that shows chained barbarians rowing a galley, watched over by a whip-wielding slave master. Divided into pairs, each twosome has their own oar and a designated cubicle with papers resembling graphs and calendars stuck to the partitions. ‘I don’t mind the whip,’ says one slave to his bench mate. ‘It’s the cubicles I find demoralising.’
The joke, of course, is that open-plan offices can feel even more dehumanising than actual servitude. It’s a sentiment that was widely held in the 70s and 80s, when open-plan offices had become commonplace and the workforce still remembered a time before it. Aiming your ambitions toward the ‘corner office’ morphed into aiming your ambitions toward having almost any kind of office at all, as long as it had a door that closed.
Ironically, the ‘inventors’ of offices without walls – architects and designers of the 60s – had honourable intentions. According to Scientific American, closed offices or ‘boxes’ were perceived as fascist, and open workspaces were meant to liberate and create greater social cohesion. ‘But companies took up their idea less out of a democratic ideology than a desire to pack in as many workers as they could,’ wrote George Musser in the magazine. Cubicles were an attempt to bring back a degree of personal autonomy and privacy.
However, the jury is still out as to whether open-plan offices as a general concept are good or bad for business. Obviously the money saved on office space has a favourable impact on the bottom line, but if this comes at the expense of employees’ productivity and job satisfaction (open-plan offices correlate strongly with a high staff turnover), is it worth it?
A great deal of research suggests it isn’t. A recent study by the University of Sydney found that nearly 50% of people in an open- plan office are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. According to furniture brand Haworth, workers lose about 28% of their productivity due to distractions and interruptions in open-plan offices.
Architecture and design firm Gensler discovered in its 2016 UK workplace survey that 67% of workers feel drained at the end of each working day due to their office environment. In addition, a paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology notes that ‘enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ [indoor environmental quality], particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced “ease of interaction” were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration’. In other words, the cons outweigh the pros.
British data analysis expert Nicole Millard believes open-plan offices will eventually be replaced by ‘coffices’: employees will carry their office on their back and meet up at coffee shops or some equivalent when face time is required. This may sound outlandish – but if you work in an open-plan office you will be aware of how often it can be more tactful to email the person sitting right next to you than talk to them, lest you break their concentration, particularly if they are wearing earplugs – a near universal ‘do not disturb’ sign in an open-plan office.
Attractive as working remotely sounds, it is unlikely to become a reality for the vast majority of office workers – in SA or abroad – any time soon, as it is not yet a tried-and-tested model, and it only suits certain types of work. Until then, companies must make the most of what they’ve got, and there are certainly basic considerations that can make or break your open-plan office environment.
‘The layout of your office depends on the type of business and the activities of the people working in an open-plan environment,’ says Terence Sorour, executive coach at Leader Coaching. ‘Where there is a need for a team to interact with one another – such as a newsroom with reporters working on and sharing a particular news story, or a design studio where ideas are constantly exchanged between designers – then open plan is the most effective.
‘If a supervisor needs to oversee the activities of their team, there again open plan will be desirable so that they can walk around and engage easily with team members, for example in a call centre,’ he says.
‘It can be overdone with floor upon floor of an office block [being] totally open, purely to save space and save costs. A balance between open-plan and private offices is preferable within industries where team dynamics or easier supervision is unnecessary.
‘Teams can be separated into smaller groups in clusters of open areas outside the offices of supervisors/managers and meeting rooms. Some large banks have successfully created semi-enclosed, glassed-off subdivisions within their head offices,’ says Sorour.
The most basic considerations of an open-plan office are, of course, who sits where, who sits next to whom, and how far apart they should be. Leaving aside the requirements of common sense (if desk buddies’ elbows are touching, chances are they’re too close together), SA’s Occupational Health and Safety Act regulations state that each employee should be provided with 2.25 m2 of space in a working environment. There are, however, no standards in the country’s legislation regarding desk measurements.
It should be self-evident that packing your employees in like sardines is a bad idea. So, who should sit next to whom? The most obvious arrangement is to seat people according to department and interaction requirements, and after that, you can take personality into account. Seating a near-mute introvert next to a gregarious loud-mouth probably isn’t sensible.
In a study on how seating can impact employee performance, US-based talent management solutions provider Cornerstone OnDemand discovered that seating the right types of workers together has been shown to generate up to a 15% increase in organisational performance. ‘For an organisation of 2 000 workers, strategic seating planning could add an estimated $1 million per annum to profit.’
One of the biggest bugbears of open-plan office workers is the obvious lack of privacy accompanying noise pollution.
Chances are, colleagues and your boss can see your computer screen at any given time, which means that when you log on to Facebook, for example (even for work purposes, which is becoming more common as we do source more news and information through this portal), there is the danger that you will be perceived to be ‘slacking off’, when it may be nothing of the sort. Not to mention the dangers of opening an attachment in an email from a friend who may have a somewhat ‘lascivious’ sense of humour.
‘Privacy is very important and employees need spaces that provide this,’ says Robyn Bailey, associate director of Johannesburg-based design, fit-out and refurbishment specialist Tétris. ‘They need to have spaces in which they can make private phone calls, spend time focusing in quiet or working on something confidential.
‘When we say open plan, we don’t mean a sea of open-plan desks but instead, a cleverly crafted and designed space with a variety of areas that suit various tasks that need to get done. These include phone booths for calling, focus booths for quiet times, meeting pods and collaboration tables, to name a few.
‘These spaces certainly don’t take away from the performance of employees, they support them in the delivery of their work. They encourage impromptu meetings, support the need for focus, respect privacy and promote efficient working within an office,’ says Bailey.
The key to having employees view their work environment as vibrant and supportive, as opposed to draining, distracting and disconnecting, is a diversity of areas – private and communal – that cater to specific needs.