The evil twins of office design

Many years ago a client commissioned me to write an article on their beautiful new offices.  The building was indeed impressive – sleek, sustainable and sophisticated. The work spaces were all bathed in natural light, desks and chairs were ergonomically designed and dotted here and there were soft seating areas where staff could hold meetings from the comfort of a squishy sofa or beanbag. 

To my mind there was only one downside – it was all open plan. I was wrong however, because as I soon discovered, ‘open plan’ was accompanied by its evil twin - ‘agile’.

Wasted space?

As he was giving me the grand tour of the fully occupied, but deathly quiet building, the head of facilities told me proudly that being an ‘agile’ work space, they only had desks for fifty percent of their resident staff.

I must have looked slightly taken aback because he went on to wax lyrical about the impressive savings in square footage, energy, resources and budget. The mandate for the change was backed by solid data thanks to a monitoring project in their old building that had fitted pressure sensors to office chairs to check occupancy rates. 

I had a flashback to my time in corporate life when a similar policy (minus the slightly creepy pressure sensors) saw team bonding fly out the window in the dawn sprint for the only two hot desks in the department.  Hit the snooze button just once and you’d be consigned to a day feeling like an interloper in Accounts or worse, stuck in the café with the rest of the corporately displaced hogging any wobbly table close to a power point. 

It was with utter delight then that I read recently that the tide seems to finally be turning against the idea of the open plan office. 

So long open plan   

Contributing to its demise, a study by Harvard Business School concluded that, (shock horror!) open plan offices, contrary to popular belief, don’t promote collaboration. 

As reported by Fast Company, in their article Here’s the final nail in the coffin of open plan offices, the study found that employees in open plan offices actually spend 73% less time in face to face interactions. I can only imagine it’s even higher in agile buildings when the first challenge in organising that impromptu brainstorm is actually figuring out where people are sitting.

The building I toured was also quiet as the grave. The only person I saw on the phone rushed past us into a glass walled meeting room before accepting the call on his mobile which had vibrated quietly on his desk. 

It’s unsurprising that in such a quiet space, nobody wants to shatter the silence and break the concentration of their colleagues. And no matter how innocuous, few people like an audience to their telephone conversations. That probably goes some why to explaining why the same study also found that email traffic in open plan buildings rocketed by 67%. Emails may be the scurge of the working world, but at least their silent.

It’s really any wonder that productivity is a battle ground and communications skills are on the slide when we force people to work in a corporate Panopticon that offers neither the opportunity for focus or privacy.  Add to that the roulette wheel of agile workspaces and it’s no surprise that so many employees are fed up and disengaged. In Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workforce report, just 15% of employees worldwide feel engaged in their work, 11% in the UK.

Engagement starts at home

Agile working is like any complex system over-simplified.  The logic may be perfectly sound on paper but it just fails to translate in the real world. As my friend in facilities asked cheerfully on our tour, ‘if you can save money and lower your footprint in the process what have you got to lose?’  I can’t argue with the savings, but on the list of losses I’d start with, trust, loyalty, concentration, communication, relationships, productivity, collaboration, engagement…shall I go on? 

The concept of ‘home’ is an incredibly powerful and important idea. The need for a sense of place and belonging isn’t confined to the home - it matters in the workplace too.

The simplest way to destroy that sense of belonging and connection is to take away that sense of place within the organisation.  If people no longer feel they belong, no longer have a ‘home, not even the best ‘employee engagement’ initiatives will make up for the sense of loss and displacement.

Here’s hoping that armed with this new research and other similar studies, workplaces will once again evolve for the good of both employees and organisations alike.