Workspace woes

The world of work still needs an effective solution to the shaping of productive office space. Here in Africa, relatively few of us have the privilege of working in offices. Far more people work in small retail outlets, factories and out under the hot sun.

For the modern office worker, anything seems better than the dark-panelled dens of the public sector, or the stark concrete and glass of academia. So many of us feel happy when we see an open plan office. ‘Here,’ we say, ‘is a modern company. I am going to enjoy working here.’

But sometimes we are disappointed. I have never liked open-plan workspaces (even those with glassed off offices for managers and rooms for meetings). My first experience of them was in Europe, where huge spaces housing tens of people were eerily silent. I found that silence inhibiting – it was as if everybody was listening to every call I made. Consequently, I spent a lot of time making calls in meeting rooms.

To be honest, I have never found open plan offices in Africa to be silent. There is always a hubbub, and sometimes it’s cheerful. But the problem here is that everything that happens becomes everyone’s business. Work and personal matters combine in an endless buzz that increases tensions between colleagues.

Then we have open plan environments where the bosses like to shout, and invoke apprehension. These are truly counterproductive, as employees spend most of their time anticipating unwelcome attention.Now, a new Harvard University study has conclusively shown the demerits of open plan. Two Fortune 500 companies planning to convert their premises to open-plan offices agreed to let Harvard compare how employees interacted both before and after the change.

Researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban had 150 participating employees wear sociometric badges for three weeks before and after the redesigns. These recorded wearers’ movement, location, posture and, via infrared and sound sensors, their every conversation with colleagues. In parallel, the researchers quantified the text messages and emails sent.

The results have just been published. They show that, as the walls came down, so did employee interaction. Simultaneously, the number of emails and text messages shot up (which won’t surprise anyone who has seen people who sit together emailing each other !)

Average face-to-face time decreased by 70 per cent across the participating employees with email use increasing by up to 50 per cent.

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates”, conclude the study’s authors.

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