Office design has evolved over the years, spearheaded by the likes of Google, which has largely done away with the conventional closed-off cubicle style in favour of open, creative spaces. Locally, Telecom’s $280 million Auckland headquaters, which opened last year, are a good example. The open-style layout is generally designed to create a more interactive and social environment where information and can be shared quickly. New research, however, has found some open office layouts may lead to subversive practices, as employees seek to stake their territory in various ways.
Stephen Cummings, professor of strategic management and head of Victoria Management School at Victoria University, along with associate professor Torkild Thanem and Sara Värlander (both from Stockholm University) investigated the effect on open office designs on employee behaviour.
Cummings said that because open office designs make their inhabitants visible to colleagues and managers, many people feel ‘watched’, less relaxed and on edge.
“The intent of taking away dividing walls and doors is usually to improve creativity and performance by fostering spontaneous fun, interaction and sharing,” said Cummings.
“However, we found evidence that it can lead to attempts by employees to re-create spatial and social structures and boundaries, actually undermining the behaviours an organisation is trying to encourage.”
One of the companies studied had recently changed its office design from small individual offices to an open office layout. While interviews with staff suggested the feeling of belonging to a team was strengthened by seeing each other every day, many began openly monitoring the arrival and departure times and breaks of their colleagues.
Cummings said an interesting flow-on effect of the new layout was a reduced number of sick days. But Cummings said this could in part be due to greater employee satisfaction, he added that it could also be because “employees were more aware of being ‘under surveillance’ by their peers”.
The study also found that although spontaneous interaction was made easier by the open design, loud discussions were disturbing to others. Some employees mentioned the lack of privacy led them to adopt a more rigid identity at work, feeling the design left less room for their private selves and innovation.
Another company that the researchers analysed promoted itself as a ‘fun place to work, with a fantastic team atmosphere’. Rooms were large and open, and ‘hot-desking’ (moving between different workspaces) was encouraged. There were also a number of themed activity rooms for employees to socialise in.
“Although hot-desking was promoted in principle, most teams marked out their territory with posters, slogans and personal items, even moving furniture to create their own personalised space, which seemed to put other teams off moving into that space,” said Cummings.
“Employees also tended to use the activity rooms in their established team groups at separate times rather than mingling with other teams.”
Cummings said the effect was to foster a competitive and performance-oriented team culture, but some employees claimed this approach made the organisation more fragmented than other organisations they’d worked for.
“It’s clear that employers need to think carefully before changing the layout of an office—simply taking down walls and telling employees to ‘relax and have fun’ is not the same as fostering creativity. A mixed layout of open and private spaces that enables people to determine the environment that suits them and their particular purposes will likely be more effective.”