Open Floor Plan Part II

The last time we covered this topic, we focused on the opportunities that arise with the dynamic assignment of workspaces. We highlighted that open floor plans were a great advance in the evolution of workplace layout, especially back when there was a lot of basic taskwork that leashed employees to their desks and a small group of other employees they needed to interact with. They were all there, just a shout away. The cost savings were huge in reduced space needed.

But there were problems too. First, we realized that attention was a delicate thing. It was hard for employees to focus on their work in a fully open office. And when privacy was needed, it was not easy to find. Also, the nature of work changed. Instead of interacting with groups of people sitting around us, we had dynamically changing global teams. To accommodate these challenges, the open office evolved into the dynamically assigned flexible spaces that we talked about in the previous post.

The Boston Globe Magazine dedicated an issue to this challenge. The primary feature was a piece on the open floor plan and its strengths and weaknesses. The used a new 300,000 sq. ft., $125 million facility as an illustration. They use one huge open office as the base for each floor and then add 16 different types of flexible workspaces. Employees are assigned a specific desk, but they also have access to the dynamics. This is not a bad hybrid given what we talked about last time.

The bigger driving factor, however, has been the pervasive idea that open offices encourage collaboration, spark creative conversation, and increase productivity. Since there’s really no such thing as a private conversation in many of these offices, they also serve to symbolize the modern, egalitarian workplace ideal: one big happy family that types together, eats together, and works through personal drama together.

The article provides some statistics that we didn’t that quantify the benefits of the open floor plan. The amount of space needed per employee goes from 250 sq. ft. to 160-190. That is enough of a difference to justify several dynamic spaces and still save. They also cite some of the objectives management has for open offices that we also alluded to. Open offices make it easy to collaborate, and employees are more likely to do things that are easy. The interaction could spark conversations that might not otherwise have occurred, increasing creativity and serendipitous innovation. It also creates a symbolic egalitarianism; everyone is in the same place. Employees that sit together also eat together and share their personal dramas. Good group bonding and group-identity building. It can also speed up interactions among employees. Instead of needing to swing by a coworker’s office, which often gets procrastinated away, the employee can just shout over the question. When someone needs help, it is easy to just look around to see who is free. And new employees can overhead what the others are doing, learning in the process.

But their survey also enumerates the negatives. Employees often run outside to make a private phone call, whether personal or work related. This is not convenient and here in Boston it can be pretty darn cold. They also cite a great phrase, the “procrastination buffet” in which there are always people around to talk to. As social animals, shooting the breeze with coworkers is almost always more interesting than whatever work we have to do. And for the employee who is singly focused on his or her work, they appear free to be interrupted. Back and forth switching between work and distractions creates a huge cost in attentional blink. Perhaps the augcog solution we discussed in this post might need side flaps too. Finally, the new generation is highly susceptible to oversharing. We see that in social media all the time. It can be even worse when it happens in your open office.

Your Turn

So add this to what we talked about last time and you have a much wider and deeper picture about open floor plan offices. Convinced yet?

Image Credit: tpsdave

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