The war on Walls

19 november 2018

Organizations are rushing to implement open office spaces in hopes of retaining talent, encouraging cross-functional collaboration, enhancing exposure to different kinds of expertise, and accelerating creativity and innovation. Sometimes this works, but often it doesn’t.

For this week’s #ConnectWithContent, we dug into the pros and cons of open office spaces and we discovered that - contrary to common belief - the volume of face-to-face interaction decreases significantly and rather than prompting vibrant collaboration, open architecture seems to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact over email and instant messages instead. We also found that success with open offices may have as much to do with how people feel about the space — something called place identity — as with the space itself. 

Enjoy the read and we hope you have a great week at the office, whether it’s an open one or not

Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes.

Open-plan offices have a surprising effect on workplace communication

A new before-and-after study led by Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein might bolster the already strong case against the open office plan: unlike previous research, it uses empirical evidence rather self-reported data to show that airy, communal spaces do not a buzzing, collaborative environment make. Bernstein, associate professor of organizational behavior, built his research around a real-life renovation at the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company engaged in a so-called war on walls. He had employees wear people analytics badges that track conversations through anonymized sensors, which gave the him data to compare against changes in online communication. He 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.

This social withdraw captured in data by the professor is nothing more than a natural human response triggered by a change in environment although these findings contradict an established theory about collective intelligence.

When forced to share space, humans behave much like swarms of insects.

This has appeared to be true in a range of contexts: college dormitories, co-working spaces, corporate buildings,... When people feel they’re on display, part of their mind is preoccupied by social pressures. ‘Do I look busy?’ becomes more important than ‘Am I doing my best work?’...

Knowing that others are watching us limits the degree to which we might creatively solve a problem,
and therefore be more productive

And what’s more, this study also found that when spatial boundaries disappear, employees don’t simply take their usual in-person exchanges online. Rather, they also begin emailing more with some people and communicating less with others. In other words, an open office can reconfigure employee networks, which obviously has an impact on the way teams work.

This study reinforces an existing argument that says intermittent social interactions, rather than constant ones, optimize our ability to work out complex problems. Spatial boundaries help people make sense of their environment by modularizing it, clarifying who is watching and who is not, who has information and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who controls what and who does not, to whom one answers and to whom one does not.

It looks like we want people to follow us online,
but not necessarily motion-by-motion in the office.

Read the whole article

The transparency ‘trap’

Digging in a bit further on this topic, we found another great article on HBR about the transparency trap, also written by Bernstein (longread!)

Transparency is not only one of the core values at HRbuilders, the European visionary interim management provider, it is also a watchword in management these days, and it’s easy to understand why: after all, if people conduct their work in plain view, won’t they be more open and accountable? Won’t they flag and fix problems more easily, and share information and their good ideas more freely? Right? Wrong!

More-transparent environments are not always better.
Privacy is just as essential for performance.

Here’s the paradox: For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions. Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide. If executives pick up on signs of covert activity, they instinctively start to monitor employee behavior even more intensely. And that just aggravates the problem.

Some organizations, however, had found the sweet spot between privacy and transparency, getting the benefits of both. They used four types of boundaries to establish certain zones of privacy within open environments:

  1. They created boundaries around individual teams—zones of attention—to avoid exposing every little action to the scrutiny of a crowd.
  2. They drew boundaries between feedback and evaluation—delineating zones of judgment—to avoid politicking and efforts wasted on managing impressions.
  3. They set boundaries between decision rights and improvement rights—establishing zones of slack—to avoid driving out tinkering.
  4. And they put boundaries around carefully defined periods of experimentation—zones of time—to avoid both too frequent and too infrequent interruptions.

Across several studies involving different industries, cultures, and types of work, the companies that had done all this were the ones that consistently got the most innovative, productive, and thoughtful work from their employees.

Just launched an open office plan? Read on :-)

How to make sure your workforce won’t Hate Your New Open Office Plan?

Also Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft have devoted millions of dollars to the redesign of their workspaces, replacing cubicles and traditional private offices with large open spaces, smaller team spaces for collaborative work, and pods for private conversations.

And outcomes are mixed: in some cases, open-plan office designs are reported to increase collaboration, employee satisfaction, and communication, but in others these new spaces are criticized for creating distractions, reducing privacy and autonomy, and undermining employee motivation and satisfaction.

That’s because the problem goes beyond the physical features of the space itself, and comes down to whether employees feel the space aligns with their self-image and enhances their sense of belonging their place identity.

The concept of place identity was first introduced by environmental psychologists who found, for example, that identifying with a particular national park led to more conservation behaviors, volunteering, and a willingness to pay higher entrance fees.

And there are 3 important things leaders can do to build place identify and transform workers’ response to new open workspaces:

  1. Convey the vision beforehand because the development of place identity does not begin after workers move into the space. Communicating the vision and purpose of the new office space prior to move in is a key predictor of employees’ connection to the space.
  2. Be enthusiastic about the space: when leaders are positive, place identity flourishes. When leaders are neutral or negative, place identity suffers and workers are less likely to embrace the new office space.
  3. Encourage Workers to Adapt the Space to Their Needs: when workers believe they have the latitude to personalize the space, they feel more place identity.

Read the whole article via this link

How employees are hacking their awful open office plan office

So while lots of people are dreaming about returning to the cubicle they once scorned, the internet has delivered DIY hacks to surviving an open plan office in the meantime wearing bluetooth noise-canceling headphones, rearview mirrors (!) and busy-lights. Find out some more hilarious hacks via this link.

Feel free to share your thoughts! Have a nice week .. 


You need an HR professional now,
and you don’t have the time or the resources to search for one yourself?
HRbuilders will find the right match in 48 hours!
While other agencies only start searching once they received your request, we already have a clear picture of potential and available candidates.
That’s because we know the HR community in-depth,
and we connect with them every single day.
This alows us to guarantee a perfect cultural fit with your organisation, while ensuring that you feel the hired candidate’s impact from day 1.
Let’s connect!

Comment on this article

Share this post