Loneliness in open offices

Offices all over the world frown upon cabins and cubicles these days as it’s the age of open-plan offices. Some have gone beyond and come up with the idea of desk-less offices. Well, it’s not exactly a vast open space with no desk at all, but a limited number of desks are on offer only on a first-come, first-served basis. Anyone who leaves a desk for more than two hours is expected to pack up and operate from the “huddle rooms” in office. So most employees behave like homeless people who carry their belongings around with them. But don’t scoff at the plan, as tomorrow’s workplace is most likely to be of the desk-less variety.

That’s a headache for the future. Human resource practitioners are still grappling with the problems that open-plan offices are throwing up, even though almost all offices, designed with a wall-free plan, have one killer selling point — they help build team spirit and increase egalitarianism and opportunities for people to be constantly mingling, sparking fresh ideas. This is required as research has shown that the time employees spend on collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 per cent or more in the past two decades.

But recent studies have turned this conventional wisdom on its head. A Harvard research paper studied two Fortune 500 companies planning to make a switch to open-plan offices and compared how employees interacted both before and after the new office design. With the help of a sociometric badge, researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban reviewed the behaviour of 150 employees and came up with some startling findings. They found that as walls came down, so did the number of face-to-face conversations at these companies — by as much as 70 per cent. Employees made up for the lost chatter by turning to online communications (email and instant messaging). Digital correspondence rose almost as much as chatting in person fell. The loss of privacy can create other problems, too. Executives at the company studied also noted reduced productivity after the office redesign.

Before taking up a new office, a large conglomerate did an internal survey and was surprised to find that almost 60 per cent of high-performance employees wanted more private spaces for problem solving, indicating that the benefits of easy communication that are intended to go along with open-plan offices don’t outweigh the drawbacks. “I want my cubicle where there is some privacy and don’t want my workplace to morph into something resembling a buffet at dinner time,” wrote one employee. Open offices, it seems, make many feel like a never-ending meeting. Staff in open offices can also feel that they are under constant supervision This pressured environment can produce a feeling of guilt and anxiety, causing many to feel like they must always appear proactive and hard at work. It’s like loneliness in a crowded room where everyone is all together, but all alone.

An HR professional says class barrier remains even in an open space. Many team leaders ensure that they have access to rooms for closed-door conversations on a moment’s notice. In other words, they want exclusive meeting rooms only they can reserve, and sit there all day long. Besides, knowledge work requires employees to attend to specific tasks by gathering, analysing and making decisions using multiple sources of information. When any of these cognitive processes are interrupted, inefficiency and mistakes increase.

While open-seating offices are here to say, what is the way out? Organisations should focus on providing workplaces that support the requirements for privacy and focus, as well as interaction and collaboration. Much of course depends on the design of the workplace. For example, the most effective open offices use shared desks with high barriers — high enough that you must stand to see your deskmate. As the height of the barrier drops, so does workplace effectiveness.

Facebook, the flag bearer of the open-office success, has reinforced the need to balance collaboration and privacy. For example, the open office story at Facebook doesn’t end with shared desks. There are conference rooms and plush private areas where people can go to focus on tasks demanding attention. Even if you don’t have the budget of a Facebook and yet have no option but to put desks out in the open, make sure the office has enough small conference rooms and more private work spaces.

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