Open-plan offices started out in the early 1900s. By the 70s, it was the rage. Mostly seen in secretary or typing pools, it soon became common to have employees who are not in the top hierarchy clustered in groups of four or more around desks, separated perfunctorily by drab grey or blue-toned chest-high dividers. As one is promoted higher up, the clusters do tend to become smaller – perhaps two desks facing one another. The top bosses all had individual rooms with glass walls so the minions could look in, but more importantly, the bosses could look out – to make sure their employees are working hard.
Myths Versus Facts
Advocates of open-plan working spaces stress advantages such as the accessibility of communication, the collaboration of ideas amidst easy banter and the lighter space being an airy concept of openness. In 2018, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban from Harvard conducted a study of two companies, and their results were published in an article called ‘The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration’. In a nutshell, they concluded that the use of emails and messaging among colleagues in an open office increased by 50%. So much for collaboration on-site!
In the past, office fit out companies were quick to promote open-plan offices to clients. They were less expensive to create and require less space. In other words, open-plan offices were cost-effective. However, with increasing negative feedback of employees admitting to taking more sick leave (to relieve stress from feeling spied upon) and the constant distraction of noise pollution, the corresponding increase in productivity was sadly a myth.
The Way Forward
Lately, some office fit out companies were quick to take the dialogue of employees and employers to heart. They balance the need for private areas with colourful movable sound-proof pods. Other popular ideas include the installation of doors to demarcate personal space.
It is all very well to pay lip service to collaboration and team effort with the concept of ‘belonging’ thrown in when it comes to open offices. However, wouldn’t a worker be happier with an environment that respects his privacy and is user-friendly in terms of acoustics? Surely both auditory and visual stimulation are key factors to an employee’s happiness, thus increasing productivity?