Agility 11
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Leadership, Lean Thinking, Agility

Rethinking Open Workspaces

It only stands to reason that an open workspace layout, without walls separating colleagues, will result in more face-to-face (F2F) collaboration, right?

Photo by  bleusengoose  under a  Creative Commons  license.

Photo by bleusengoose under a Creative Commons license.

Not so fast. A recent study by the Royal Society showed that the switch to an open workspace reduced F2F interactions by 70% at two large multinational companies who switched from a walled office layout to an open one.

Yikes. 70% less face-to-face interaction!

The study’s participants wore sociometric badges that can accurately measure when people are interacting face-to-face. The researchers also used data from the companies’ servers to measure email and IM traffic. Surprisingly, they found that electronic communication increased over the same time period by 20% to 50%. The authors made this conclusion:

when office architecture makes everyone more observable or ‘transparent’, it can dampen F2F interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate.1

Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has written that open workspaces are particularly difficult for introverts, and has also recommended that companies provide quiet spaces for employees who thrive in them.

This face to face collaboration stuff is important to us Agilists, and many of us have espoused open offices and collaborative team spaces to foster better collaboration. For a long time, I’ve recommended that organizations provide employees with both private spaces and collaborative team spaces that can be used on-demand - ‘the best of both worlds’.

That’s a potentially expensive proposition, but so is a 70% reduction in face to face interaction of your highly skilled workforce.

But is this study relevant to my organization? The study covered two large corporations who redesigned their corporate office space. In the case of the first company:

The redesign—which required people to move from assigned seats on their original floor to similarly assigned seats on a redesigned floor of the same size—affected employees in functions including technology, sales and pricing, human resources (HR), finance, and product development, as well as the top leadership.1

It’s possible that a smaller company with a more collaborative culture, and/or a higher proportion of extroverts, might not experience the same drop in F2F interaction. But do you want to take that chance?