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Management: Opening The Office For The Right Reasons
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Management: Opening The Office For The Right Reasons - Executive Leadership Articles

Management: Opening The Office For The Right Reasons

Executive Leadership Articles

Management: Opening The Office For The Right Reasons

It can be a lot of fun to look at the physical configurations of workspaces in American movies from the 1940s and 1950s. Bosses have offices with glass walls, looking out over expansive common areas, in which rows and rows of identical desks house employees with near-identical shirts and ties, speaking on identical telephones, all facing the big office. Occasionally, one of the workers will light a cigarette or open a desk drawer, retrieving a bottle of whiskey for a splash in his coffee mug.

It’s an early, primitive version of the open offices that have proliferated in the past decade or so, led by high-profile successes at Google and Facebook, and estimates say that up to 70% of companies in America now feature some type of open office. Proponents say that open offices, as opposed to personal cubicles, lead to more collaboration, improved camaraderie, and greater productivity. Detractors say the increased distraction of open offices is actually a damper on productivity, that illness is up because of shared space in close quarters, and that decreased privacy leads to more stress.

There’s nothing collaborative about those office scenes from the old movies, but the layout in today’s open offices is clearly different. Individual desks facing the same direction are replaced by shared tables or personal desks arranged in clusters, with people facing each other. Often, executives and managers share the space as well, stepping into conference rooms if private conversation is necessary. When the spaces are designed thoughtfully, there’s a flexibility for preferences, with some tables near windows overlooking the city, and some in quieter corners of rooms. When they’re planned with less employee-centered motivation, the look is decidedly more utilitarian and more uniform.

This difference between motivations is really the heart of whether or not open offices work as intended. Are companies creating them with employees’ needs in mind, or are they specifically implemented with managers’ priorities first? An open office that exists primarily because it costs less than individual workspaces or because managers find it easier to micromanage is doomed to fail at the employee level. But an open office that addresses and provides for employees’ obstacles in such arrangements is much more likely to yield a positive workplace.

One Facebook employee highlights the social network’s emphasis on personal needs, pointing to flexibility in workspaces and scheduling, empowering personal boundaries, and encouraging “serendipitous encounters” in common areas such as kitchens and cafes. These considerations seem to reap the intended benefits of open offices while mitigating less desired outcomes.
Such serendipitous encounters are critical for collaboration, but not necessarily the collaboration envisioned by practical-thinking managers. Collaboration on directed work is one thing, but it usually takes place in conference rooms and email conversations anyway.

It’s incidental encounter that leads to creative collaboration, as targeted by Steve Jobs’s design of the Pixar campus. While some employees do have private offices, bathrooms are located so that they ensure unplanned contact. Jobs was sure that casual conversation with people from across the company’s varied departments was critical in keeping the animation studio’s creativity vibrant and fresh. A similar big, messy collaboration in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Building 20 resulted in an unbelievable assortment of world-altering ideas.

Like many great concepts, open offices can be amazing, living, constantly evolving places of goodwill and good productivity, but they can also backfire if they aren’t implemented with the best of intentions. Cubicles themselves were invented as a means for increasing—not decreasing—interaction among colleagues and personal adjustment of desk height according to an employee’s preferences, but rather than the multi-modal, adaptive purpose it was designed for, office managers saw a way to keep spaces uniform and employees separate, bringing us to the oft-maligned cubicle farms many of us now shun. Open offices, like the cubicles they are meant to replace, can be beautiful places to work, if the motivation behind them is in the right place.

Reference links:
Facebook’s open office: http://www.inc.com/tanner-christensen/how-facebook-keeps-employees-happy-in-the-worlds-largest-open-office.html
Building 20: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_20


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Management: Opening The Office For The Right Reasons - Executive Leadership Articles

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