How to increase productivity in an open plan office

Open plan offices are slowly becoming the standard in workplaces across the country. But are they really effective? Do they improve productivity or hamper it? Dr Jim Taylor discusses what your work environment says about you and whether open plan offices really are the way to go.

I wonder what a worker on the pyramids would make of the sight of 30 workers in an open plan office, in a multi storied building with similar scenes on several floors.

The transition from hunter and collector to regimented wage earner makes for stark visual contrast.

The first push towards employer-imposed strict working hours began with the Industrial Revolution in the 1850’s. Factories didn’t produce if all of their human elements weren’t present at the same time. Charles Dickens’ imagery from the 1850’s onwards gives us some idea of the way workers were debased and abused in the early days of industrialisation. We would hope things have changed.

I was asked to give a radio interview on open plan offices recently. As a matter of routine, I researched the Internet on the subject. The responses of those working in open plan situations seemed to fall into two broad groups.

1.    “There are major problems and I hate it”.

2.    “I know it is difficult, but you just have to make the most of it”.

This polarisation was reflected by the phone-in responses during the radio program.

A different perspective comes from two other disparate sources. In Tom Wolfe’s “Hooking Up” he describes the beginnings of one of the earlier software development groups in Silicon Valley.  Like-minded souls, working in academia in the computing area decided to join forces to drive new ideas in software. They had known each other for years; were of similar status (intellectually and academically) and decided to set up their business in an old factory (for reasons of economy). They share an area where they can move easily between work spaces. This is ideal for the kind of brain-storming required for research and innovation-based work. There are some “side offices” used for meetings, but the flat management (ie. minimal management) and the nature of their work, are facilitated by this open work space.

Gary Hamel, in his book “The New Management”, describes how several successful enterprises take a radically different approach to doing business.  He questions the time-honoured hierarchical approach, where a small number of minds (believing they know what’s best) make all the important decisions in running businesses. They are loath to entertain ideas from people lower in the food chain, who also just happen to be closer to what is happening in the business.

The Gore Corporation began in 1958 when Bill Gore left the DuPont Corporation after 17 years with them.  He saw how good ideas foundered on the rocks of bureaucracy. He started his own business in his garage, working on new ways of using the chemical spin offs from the plastics industry eg.  by stretching nylon he produced “gortex”.  He attracted like-minded people to work with him. He began by putting a premium on innovation and encouraged people to self select teams to work on various projects. He now has a thriving corporation with many innovative products – from plastic coated guitar strings to sophisticated medical prosthetic materials.  His people work in open plan situations, in groups of buildings collected in the one area.  Once again, the physical environment reflects the nature of the business, but also enhances it. Not only is the Gore Corporation very successful financially with annual sales of 2.1 billion dollars, and 8,000 employees working in 45 plants, it is also one of the top 10 employers in terms of workers’ satisfaction.

So, the open plan situation can work, especially where it matches the nature of the work and the management structure of the business.

Unfortunately that isn’t the case in most open plan offices. The first advantage for employers is obvious cost savings. They are cheaper to set up, cheaper to alter (no walls to move) and cheaper to light and heat.  In theory, people are more accessible, so that problems can be discussed and decisions can be made more easily.  This, in theory, should improve productivity.

There is a downside however.  These are noisy, busy places where there is no such thing as a private conversation.  Humans value privacy, especially when discussing matters requiring sensitivity.  This is virtually impossible in a busy open plan situation.

Humans like their work space to be personalised. This is more difficult in a plastic, metal and glass cubicle.  Space is at a premium, so there isn’t usually room for much more than a desk, a chair, a computer screen and a few “odds and sods”.  Heating and lighting can’t be individually adjusted.  Infectious diseases spread rapidly in open plan offices.

In 2008, Dr V Oommen at QUT researched open plan offices. He discovered that productivity was in fact reduced.  He also found higher rates of interpersonal conflict, staff turnover and stress related medical problems.  This brings into question the value of short term cost efficiencies. So, what can be done to reduce the potential toxicity of the open plan workplace?

1.    Try to make your space as personalised as possible.  Use some imagination.  Try some greenery.

2.    Orientate your chair and desk angles to minimise visual exposure to busy traffic areas in the office.  Take some time to do this.  Be prepared to experiment.

3.    Make use of private spaces where ever possible, especially for important meetings.

4.    Explore the issue of working from home for some part of the working week, if you find the open plan situation uncomfortable.

While open plan offices have their downsides, they can be quite effective if they are tailored to suit the needs of the business and the staff.

People who read this, also liked:

Improving business productivity
Staff engagement

Related Stories