Office space has become more and more open for the past few decades. The days when managers automatically got private offices have been replaced by cubicle culture. When cubicles initially became standard fare in offices, they were generally relegated to lower level employees. As time wore on, more senior folks found themselves staring at the three walls of their cubicles. Individual offices became scarce, premium real estate, that indicated that you HAD ARRIVED.
Time wore on, and someone decided that offices and cubicles alike both limited interaction, as well as reinforced an office caste-like hierarchy. It was deemed by somebody (no one knows who) that walls themselves were barriers to productivity. To create an egalitarian corporate culture, those walls needed to come down. Just as the destruction of the Berlin wall led to a stronger, more productive, unified Germany, so too the absence of walls in offices across North America would spur innovation and teamwork.
Mass renovations took place. Cubicle components and drywall were carted away in industrial dumpsters. Those barriers were replaced with long tables, ergonomic chairs, and lots of natural light. This, they knew, would surely provide an excellent environment for collaboration, teamwork, and communication.
Of course, if you’ve ever worked in an open office, you know that the opposite is true. Now you have science to back you up. A recent study conducted by Harvard Business School confirms what you already know: open office plans are one of the dumbest management fads ever. More specifically, the study found that when employees move from a traditional office to an open plan, it doesn’t cause them to interact more socially or more frequently. Instead, the opposite happens. They start using email and messaging with much greater frequency than before. In other words, even if collaboration were a great idea, open plan offices are not effective at making it happen.
As anyone who has endured this “culture” can attest, open plan offices stifle creativity and collaboration. Rather than lively conversation, people sit and stare at their computers while enjoying their noise-canceling headphones. There is an eerie quiet that pervades the space. Rather than talking with coworkers, most opt to communicate via IM or email, so as not to disrupt the peaceful silence. Need to lead a conference call with a client? Good luck finding a conference room that isn’t occupied by someone trying to get some work done in private. Oh, you need to work on some confidential intellectual property? Best to stay home and use VPN instead.
If you’re a manager and you want to improve your team’s performance, you need to rally against this stupid experiment in social engineering. You may be saving money on things like walls, but you’re losing your employees’ interest, as well as their best possible performance.