11 July 2011

Battery People: The Dark Side Of Open Plan Offices

Do you find that interruptions are the constant companion of an open plan office? If you’ve been one of my ‘family’ of readers for a while, you’ll possibly already know my thoughts on unmoderated open plan environments, but in case you’re new, or missed my previous comments, here’s the snippet from‘Getting a Grip on the Paper War – Managing information in the modern office’ which I have been known to share with my audience.

When writing ‘Getting a Grip on the Paper War’, I decided that my subjective opinion about open plan efficiency (or lack of) was not sufficient – that we needed some hard data. So, (and some of you were the kind respondents, thanks), I asked our ezine readers three short questions about your preferred working style and how easily you are distracted by surrounding noise.

From 3867 ezine subscribers enrolled at the time, we had a 12.5% response rate, and that was without offering any delicious inducement, such as a trip to Fiji! I’d tapped a raw nerve!

If you want the best productivity out of your staff, you might want to consider the following results:

Prefer open plan – 9.8% 
Prefer to work in a separate office, or away from others – 41.4% 
Depends what they’re doing. Need quiet when they’re concentrating – 41% 
Don’t mind – can work in any situation – 4.9%

The audience sat there in shocked silence for a moment and then one of the guys burst out: ‘So who on earth sold us THAT crock of s…? How did we ever buy into such a stupid idea?

‘I think it’s been largely driven by economics – the cost of floor space in CBD areas,’ I replied.

And then it was my turn to be shocked (along with the rest of the audience). From the back of the room David called out. ‘You’re absolutely right. I had over 30 years in a huge multi-national insurance company, much of it at very senior levels, and in more than one country. I’m not proud of it now, but I’ve sat in many meetings with other executives and office designers, discussing the minimum floor space requirements we can get away with for each employee. There is a formula, and let me assure you, productivity of each individual is not even considered. The driver was always how many people we could fit into the smallest possible space at the lowest possible cost. We calculated that we could get away with between 1½ – 5 sq. m., depending on the role and a bunch of other factors.’

Oh, battery people instead of battery hens,’ was a quick response.

I talked in more depth with David later. The story got worse. What had once been a proud New Zealand company was sold to offshore owners, fragmented, centralised, dumbed down and hollowed out from the inside by overseas ‘bright boys’ whose only measures were cost-driven. A huge staff turnover resulted, rework went through the roof, far more mistakes were made, most of the experienced people went, the supervisors were overloaded and stressed out and the customers ended up with increased prices.

Of course not all this falls in the lap of open plan environments. I tell you this sad tale to urge you to think carefully, and ask your people their work preferences, before you rush in with great enthusiasm to remove partitions. Just because we see it in many offices does not mean it’s good!

(And before anyone jumps down my throat, yes, there are times when open plan is very useful. We’ll always have exceptions to any rule. Just check it out first. Ask yourself, ‘What conditions will give optimum productivity to our knowledge-based office workers, rather than just cost-savings?)


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