The BBC recently highlighted research revealing that employees in open plan offices spend 73% less time in face to face interactions. Whilst email use increased by over 67%.
That’s no surprise to me. Three decades ago, when I joined the company that later became Diageo, I sat in a large, modern open plan. This state-of-the-art space was occupied by five different departments. Everyone had a desk and cupboard that gave them visual privacy. But the whole office was very quiet. So, while I could concentrate on written work, I found myself very inhibited when it came to making telephone calls. I felt that everyone was listening to every word.
In both previous and subsequent workplaces, I was much happier working in smaller team rooms without partitions. My calls were still overheard, but the teams were homogenous. So, there was togetherness. ‘Banter’ kept us all amused while we worked. Better still, when an outsider came into our space, he made sure he came with purpose. We didn’t welcome idle passers-by.
Fast forward to the present and most of my working week is spent in client company offices. (You cannot hope to change a culture unless you can see, hear and feel it.) Most of them are open plan: a fashion prompted by the legitimate desire to increase interaction and collaboration among workers. Senior managers tend to retain closed offices, generally justified by the need to conduct confidential meetings. Here in Africa we have been delighted to embrace open plan. The bosses don’t suffer, the place looks aspirational to visitors, and there’s a feeling that dark deeds cannot be committed in plain sight. A fallacy, by the way.
In fairness, we really did have to get away from all that ghastly dark wooden panelling and heavy plush furniture that Governments love. For decades even private sector bosses were only truly happy when sitting in a huge swivel chair behind an expansive desk, flanked by the ultimate status icon: the varnished coat stand.
While international research has shown that the time employees spend on “collaborative activities’’ has “ballooned by 50 percent or more” in the past two decades, I’m not sure it’s working so well here. We face two significant challenges.
Firstly, open workspaces are very threatening if your company culture isn’t ‘safe’. If your management style is aggressive, your employees sit in a constant state of alertness. Like lizards on rocks, waiting for impending predators. Secondly, in a space with no privacy, everything becomes everyone’s business. From marital strife to performance failure; having everything on view is distractin