I recently spent a day working in a client’s office. Lucky me. It’s a long time since I did so, and I was struck by something rather unnerving. This was an open plan office, with I imagine about thirty people working in it. What struck me was that the majority of the time I was there, the place was almost silent apart from the odd phone ringing. Lots of people had headphones on (big ones, to make sure people knew they didn’t want to be talked to), and all were staring intently into their screens and bashing away on their keyboards. It was all rather soulless and dispiriting.
I guess the original idea behind open plan was to encourage people to talk to each other more, not less. We now know that it has had the opposite effect. Research at Harvard Business School followed workers at two US companies and tracked the amount and type of interaction between people before and after they went open plan, using “people analytics badges”.
“…..Researchers found that conversations by email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly after the office redesign, while productivity declined, and, for most people, face-to-face interaction decreased. Participants in the first study spent 72% less time interacting in person in the open space. Before the renovation, employees had met face to face for nearly 5.8 hours per person over three weeks. In the after picture, the same people held face-to-face conversations for only about 1.7 hours per person.”, the study concluded.
Co-author Dr Ethan Bernstein goes on to say: ‘Knowing that others are watching us limits the degree to which we might creatively solve a problem, and therefore be more productive, according to a study he conducted with factory workers. “Do I look busy?” becomes more important than “Am I doing my best work?”’
This ought to worry us. Not only is the open plan office damaging human interaction and productivity. It’s also effectively a form of bullying, in that it creates an environment which potentially suits the Extroverts but is anathema to the Introverts who make up roughly 50% of any sizeable workforce. Introverts are at their best when they have a chance to think about things by themselves, in a quiet working environment. Give an Introvert a problem to solve BEFORE pulling them into a meeting to discuss it, and you’ll help them to access their creative side far more efficiently.
We seem to have evolved a society where Introversion is frowned upon to some extent. At school and University you are assessed on how often you ask questions, for instance – something with comes fluently for an Extrovert but can be debilitating and agonising for an Introvert. The open plan office is just another manifestation of the Extroverted bias, it seems to me (and in case you’re wondering, I’m an Extrovert.)
I work with another client who seems to have recognised this, and has spent no doubt many millions rowing back from open plan, by creating booths and other quiet places for the Introverts to go and do their thing. Going back to the example I mentioned at the start of this article, that client has a couple of side rooms available for quiet working, which are always fully booked and oversubscribed.
So today I’m banging the drum for the Introverts and suggesting a rethink on what environment we should create to unlock productivity and encourage collaboration between our people. We work long and hard enough to warrant some intelligent thinking about how we can make the workplace more conducive to connecting people and building relationships. Let’s face it, life’s too short to go through our careers like a team of worker ants. Surely people deserve better?
Footnote: many thanks to those of you who bought my recently published book “My Job Isn’t Working!” last week. My publisher tells me it has sold more copies than most business books do in their lifetime. If you missed it, here’s a link to it on Amazon.com. It has a chapter on building relationships which is relevant to this article.