This blog reflects on life at work at comments on the latest news that shapes my 9-5 working day in a Corporate Communications consultancy.

About Me

I am a born and bred South African who has always loved to read and write. As a child my mother used to read to me and my siblings, from classics like the “Lord of the Rings” but later also from her own stories. She would write children’s stories and then use us as her test audience, but I loved to hear what she had written long after my siblings had tired of it. So I grew up in an environment of reading and writing, which inspired my love of these things. I hope to write a great book some day, and have learnt first hand the determination and will that it takes. My love of English inspired me to continue my study of it at university. I majored in Law and English in a BA degree at UCT where I found that I took to English much more than law. I enjoyed learning about South Africa’s history and the development of our liberal Constitution, which increasingly made me committed to the hope this country has for the future. Ideally, I’d like to find myself in a job where I am able to write; that allows a good mix of time spent with people and being able to work on my own.

Tuesday, 05 May 2009

Debating the wisdom of open plan offices

Time to be honest about open-plan offices
By Michael Skapinker
Published: May 4 2009 19:19 Last updated: May 4 2009 19:19

When I began my first management job, an entrepreneur friend gave me some useful advice: “Give your people space to moan about you.” Talking about the boss was an inevitable part of working life, she said, and a way for teams to establish camaraderie.
I remembered her words when the Financial Times reported that Terry Morgan, chief executive of Tube Lines, had no office, sitting instead at a desk on an open-plan floor where he gazed over his employees. Mr Morgan, whose company runs three London Underground lines, said: “The only privilege I have is the best view.”
Lynda Gratton, a London Business School professor, said of Mr Morgan’s arrangement: “We’ll see more of it. Organisations are moving to being more of networks. So sitting with your colleagues signals that you see it in a less hierarchical way.”
Underlying the question of whether the boss should sit in an open-plan office is whether anyone should. That is not an issue much discussed these days, so well-entrenched is the assumption that open-plan offices encourage the free-flowing communication essential to business success. Put people together, let them talk and innovation will flow.
Will it? Certainly, people need to talk to get things done. But do they need to spend their days in the same office to talk, especially when they have e-mail and Skype? Thirty years of studies have revealed that open-plan design “only minimally facilitates communications and does so at the expense of privacy”, Suining Ding, a US academic, noted in an article in Facilities journal.
The privacy point is important. Who would opt for a shared space if they could have their own? Backpackers stay in youth hostel dormitories, but that is because they cannot afford to pay for privacy. Hotels do not ask business travellers whether they would like to have their own rooms or shared ones, because they know the answer. Airlines can charge considerably more for seats that give you some distance from your neighbours.
Whatever small gains open-plan offices do offer in enhanced communication are, in any event, wiped out by the loss of productivity. We do not need academic studies to tell us people get less done when they have to listen to their neighbours’ conversations and telephone calls. Once again, a commonsense reference to life outside the office suffices: libraries have a rule of silence because it allows people to work.
It is not just the distractions of open-plan offices that lower productivity. A recent article in the Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management said that employees in open-plan offices were more prone to eye, nose and throat irritations, and more likely to come down with flu.
Open-plan offices may offer companionship, but that assumes you like the people whose space you share. It is surely more comfortable to be able to pop into the private office of those you want to see.
So why are most offices these days open-plan? Because they cost less. The Asia Pacific Journal article put the saving at up to 20 per cent. Not only do open-plan offices allow companies to eliminate the cost of all those walls; they can also fit far more people into the same space.
There is nothing wrong with cutting costs; lower costs mean higher profits and a better chance of corporate survival. Organisations in which every employee has his or her own office might soon find themselves undercut by companies, possibly on the other side of the world, that pack staff into a single space.
Open-plan buildings are, as the Asia Pacific Journal says, also more efficient to heat and cool than traditional closed offices, so open-plan is greener as well as cheaper.
Given that it seems here to stay, should managers share the open space with their staff? There are strong arguments in favour. Whether it comes to insisting that all staff fly economy or cut down on lunches with clients, when companies impose a cost-cutting hardship on staff, managers should lead by example.
Against that, managers need a space to talk to employees in private, and for employees to talk to them, away from the straining ears of their colleagues. That can be dealt with by providing meeting spaces away from the open-plan areas, although that requires staff to make specific arrangements to talk rather than just dropping by. (By way of declaring an interest, I should say that I have an office next to the open-plan area of the team I manage.)
But my friend’s point remains: managers may want to work alongside their staff, but their staff may not want to work alongside them. Certainly, managers who work in open-plan areas should give their people a break by going somewhere else from time to time. Mr Morgan of Tube Lines told the FT he liked working in the open-plan office because, “I can listen to the gossip.” The gossip he is unlikely to hear is the gossip about him. His staff probably go elsewhere for that.