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Thursday, 6 May 2021

Office layouts: to open floor or not to open floor

With the post-pandemic return to the office on the horizon, companies are shaking up the norm with open floor plans: HSBC CEO Noel Quinn recently announced the bank’s move to a fully open plan floor with no designated desks because after “having spent more than a year working from home, the last thing I want is to be stuck in an individual office when I return to the building,” he wrote on Linkedin. Meanwhile, Standard Chartered CEO Bill Winters cleared out his personal office and made it available as a working space or meeting room, as last year’s events proved that “the concept of dedicated offices is incompatible with the emergent need for flexibility, collaboration and space-efficiency,” explained CFO Andy Halford, according to Bloomberg. These examples are just a drop in the ocean, with the traditional office space falling out of fashion among global firms after a year of solitude and disrupted communication.

This “new way of working” aims to bring on more engagement and easier communication: The disappearance of physical barriers — whether they’re cubicles or fancy executive offices — promises to make employees more visible to each other, and therefore, more likely to engage in a conversation that will foster relationships or lead to quicker problem solving.

But does it work? As CEOs enthusiastically order in the demolition crews, employees might opt out of removing the sense of privacy for a more monitored work environment. The close proximity doesn’t always mean that colleagues will hit up the water cooler or become besties. The ways they can choose to ignore each other, if that’s what they want, have become endless: avoiding eye contact, a bathroom break, or just being so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (aided with a pair of headphones), suggests The Harvard Business Review.

It’s actually been tried and tested: A few years back, HBR collected data from two Fortune 500 companies who transitioned to open offices before and after the architecture change. The findings discovered that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate. The university news site got a bit artistic with their explanation of the results, looking to the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot for an answer. Diderot was one of the first to discuss the fourth wall during performances and the argument is that as the audience grows, so does the need for the fourth wall. In open spaces, fourth wall norms spread quickly as employees try to respect their colleagues potential for distraction or want of quiet while in a busy or crowded area.

The openness could also lead to a lack of productivity, Forbes chimed in as saying in a follow up to the HBR article. In a cited study, 31% of employees in open offices said they hold back while on calls in the office because they don’t want coworkers to hear and judge them. Meanwhile, one-in-three workers feel distractions and noise from open work spaces hinder their productivity, while one-in-six responded to lower creativity.

This was before the pandemic, maybe things have changed: The layout of the office matters less after the pandemic, with the main pillar of change being a manager who has been able to dismantle virtual, as well as physical, barriers, argues Andrew Hill for The Financial Times. The symbolism of the open office plan and the moves taken on by Quinn and Halford aren’t to be underestimated, but it all depends on how approachable they seem to the common employee and how well they foster an environment of friendliness and teamwork. Take Mark Zuckerburg for example, who boasts an open office at Facebook. In reality, his desk is reportedly policed by a ring of security guards as part of the USD 10 mn he spends annually for private protection, reports Yahoo News. The lesson is, it’s less about the shuffling of desks and more about open minds.

So how should we create the best office spaces? As covid might have taught us, face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office and it's important that the blueprint of workplaces allow for chance encounters and unplanned conversations. Another HBR article delved into how to achieve this, urging for design offices to reflect how 21st-century digital work actually happens, re-engineering offices to become cohesive with the urban fabric, adding multipurpose spaces, and strategic coffee machines.

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