Monday, October 3, 2011

Open Plan Offices

Humans are territorial. At a country level we are protective of our borders. At a personal level we reside in homes that are clearly our personal space. However, with the design of the office working environment in our rational business world we tend to overlook the territorial dimension of human nature.

Research into the impact of the physical working environment helps us with design decisions to suit the human condition.

Open Plan
With the shift over the last 30 years from industrial work to knowledge work, the bulk of work has shifted from the factory to the office. Now with a relatively high number of office workers, organizations have understandably paid more attention to the amount of space allocated for office workers. Over the years of walls of offices for professional and technical workers have been removed to create open plan office space. What's the impact of this open physical environment on employees, and what design features should we incorporate to facilitate staff engagement and productivity?

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, Australia conducted an extensive review of the literature to assess the advantages and disadvantages of open plan offices.

From the research, the positive aspects of open plan tend to be:
• Cost-effective design
• Equal work space for employees
• Enhanced communication
• Increased collaboration
• Accommodates more employees
• Energy efficient heating and cooling.

On the flip side, the negative aspects identified in the research tend to be:
• High level of noise ("research has identified 'noise' as a likely cause of employee dissatisfaction")
• Loss of concentration ("increased noise, interruptions and distractions")
• Lower productivity ("almost all highly skilled jobs were more negatively affected by the environment as these jobs required more privacy in order to perform well")
• Issues with privacy ("problems with visual and conversational privacy were very pronounced")
• Lack of status
• Feelings of insecurity (such as being watched)
• Job dissatisfaction ("open plan can create potential for overstimulation leading to dissatisfaction with work", "lower satisfaction due to lack of control over their physical environment", "lack of personal privacy and lack of privileged communication")
• More chances of workplace stress and other health symptoms
• Higher staff turnover (due to factors including increased social density, noise and distractions).

(Source: V. G, Oommen et al, "Should Health Service Managers Embrace Open Plan Work Environments? A Review", in Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management 2008: 3: 2)

Personal Space
Some organizations struggle with a policy question of allowing employees to decorate their workstations with personal artifacts.

A UK a psychologist at Exeter University says that allowing employees to personalize their working area could improve their performance in the office. "In the experiments we have run, employees respond better in spaces that have been enriched with pictures and plants. If they have been allowed to enrich the space themselves with their own things it can increase their wellbeing by 32% and their productivity by 15%. (This) is because they are able to engage with their surroundings, feel more comfortable and to concentrate."

One design solution that goes way too far for humans is "hot-desking" (where a person does not have an allocated workstation but takes an available desk when they come in to work). This approach would be okay for warthogs! Warthogs are opportunistic burrowers. At night when they are ready to retreat from the savannah, a warthog family uses any unused burrow. One might say they "hot-burrow". But that's not the human condition. We take pride in "home". We want to be with our group. Hot desking is a fast way to cause staff to feel isolated. Even for workers who are often out of the office, such as sales representatives, they should be provided a space with their "family" unit at work. While this might mean some redundancy of office space, it will reduce any sense of isolation. Without the basic need of belonging covered, other efforts at engagement will tend to be futile.

Offices for People Managers
The office design should reflect the way we would like our organization to operate—what behaviors do we want to promote. One behavior to be promoted is frequent and easy conversations between managers and their staff. This relationship is the building block of an engaged and productive workforce. The fact that 80% of people who resign from organizations do so because of an unsatisfactory relationship with their supervisor says that this relationship is important. We should pull ever lever we can to promote the relationship.

Therefore, even if their staff are in open plan, people managers should have an office, positioned with their team. An office enables easy, informal conversations—that are inhibited if a manager and a staff member have to always try to find a meeting room. Easy conversations build effective relationships.

How does all this translate to design principles? On the assumption that open plan offices are here to stay, here are the key recommendations from the research and through the lens of human instincts:
1. Team members should be seated together (supporting the nature of team as an as if family unit).
2. The manager should be located with their team (not in a separate place with other high-status individuals).
3. Even if their team is in open plan, the manager should have an office.
4. All staff should have an allocated workstation to support their sense of identity and belonging.
5. Staff should be encouraged to decorate their workstation as personal space.
6. Reasonable space is designed for each person (not over-crowding) and there is quiet space between teams.


Thanks to Andrew O'Keeffe / Hardwired Humans


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