Three reasons for open plan offices not working

One of the themes that is recurring in my #sharingorg  research project is that of there being two distinct modes for collaboration within organisations. The Optimisation mode is the one that comes most naturally to big organisations – it’s the direct descendent of Adam Smith’s thinking, and is about delivering improvement through process and (continual) incremental improvement.

The Innovation mode, on the other hand, seems much more common in smaller, newer organisations, and is the looser, more cooperative style of working necessary to devise new ways of thinking, new products, and new working patterns.

Both modes are necessary, but they require different styles of leadership, different infrastructure to support, and different means of incentivisation. Running both in parallel can be a challenge.

Moreover, the way in which you approach projects that attempt to drive improvements in either optimisation or innovation collaboration must in themselves live the values of the outcomes you are expecting. It’s hard for free and easy associating networks to implement hard process change, and it’s very difficult to set processes in place to encourage loose-networked teamworking.

All of this has got me thinking about the challenge of workplace improvement and how often there is a significant mis-match between flexible workspace/working initiatives, the needs of those involved and the necessary organisational objectives.

1. Cost saving is an optimisation goal

Despite surrounding lipstick, the pig that underpins most initiatives to deliver hot-desking, “smart working” and the like in most organisations is to save on facilities costs. That’s an optimisation goal. Saying that you are looking to “improve team-working” when you are in optimisation mode is at best a mixed message when…

2. Not all collaboration is created equal

Loose, networked ways of working seem better suited to the loose associations needed to generate innovative insight, not to knuckle down and make processes work more efficiently and effectively. It’s about re-engineering not processes improvement. And if you are in a big cost-saving drive,  then you are probably not really looking for that sort of collaboration…

3. Small teams and individuals optimize when they’re undisturbed

… because what you are probably saying when you’re trying to knock x% out of your facilities budget is that you want your staff really to just focus on doing what they do and doing what they do better.

And if that’s the case, why are you putting change uncertainty, disruption and a bunch of interruptions into their lives under a false pretence of “better teamworking”?

For just about my entire career I’ve worked in open plan offices. I have had the experience of being in a small office (for a team of 12), and a very small office (for 2 people). There are pros and cons to all of those settings (and I’ll sit firmly on the fence and say my preferred environment was that that was team-sized). But that’s down to the work we were doing at the time, the make-up of the team, and my own personal preferences.

Organisations come under pressure to deliver cost savings. Facilities can be a big cost. But rather than bunging a few bean bags in a corner and imagining everything will go a “bit Google” as you rip out the partition walls, why not have a bit more direct honesty in these initiatives and start by saying “We are doing this to save money. How can we save the most money with the least interruption to people’s working day so they can continue to improve how they work?” The end results might look somewhat similar, but the path to get there would be much more honest (and I’d wager much more successful).

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