The other day I was talking to someone going through the process of moving into an open plan office. He worked for a very traditional organisation (he is a lawyer) and the transition for him and his team was clearly proving difficult. It made me wonder whether open-plan offices, like outsourcing, was a business idea that will soon start to become unfashionable.
Outsourcing is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. The idea is that moving transactional and commoditised services to people who specialise in those things will reduce costs and increase productivity. Nice idea, but in practice it often takes far more effort to manage the interface than it saves. There are also other issues: the more you dilute the business operations the more you dilute the corporate culture. And, of course, if everyone is trying to be strategic then who is left minding the shop.
The “fad” of open-plan is another example of starting in the right place for the right reasons but coming to the wrong answer. Offices were seen as a symbol of the old way of working. They represented a sense of status and hierarchy (I can remember the days when offices were carefully measured to ensure they reflected the relevant grade). They were also seen as encouraging a silo mentality and of perpetuating inefficiencies. After all, how much work actually went on behind closed doors, especially in those post prandial hours?
Open-plan offices are seen as being inclusive and meritocratic, and of providing a more creative and transparent environment that allows the whole team to be together. But do they actually work? Open-plan offices can also be a pretty difficult place to work. Often they are incredibly noisy and distracting. Noise control legislation was originally introduced to protect factory workers. Current regulations set the bar at 85 decibels and it would be interesting to know how many open-plan offices get close to that. There is the constant whirring of photocopiers and printers, and “bing-bong, lift going up” every few minutes. The constant ringing of phones (and the unanswered mobile left on a desk). There are noisy co-workers: the ones with piercing voices that can be heard across a whole room. And what about the “informal meeting” when someone starts chatting to the person next to you. All very noisy, very distracting and, probably, not particularly efficient.
Recently some people have started to focus on the importance of introverts in business. It probably comes as no surprise that whereas extroverts love brainstorming, introverts hate them. Whatever technique is applied, the end result merely forces introverts further into their shell. Which is a shame, for introverts tend to make up a majority of the gifted population. They tend to have the best thought-through and most practical ideas. And where do they have their best ideas? Not in a public brainstorm but on their own at their desk. In fact, at their desk with a bit of peace and quiet. Making a bunch of detail-focused introverts leave their offices and placing them in a bear-pit, extrovert-friendly, open-plan office tends to make them feel uncomfortable, increasing stress and decreasing productivity.
So why are these lawyers only now getting around to the idea of open plan? This is where the diffusion model comes in. New things start with innovators, the people who have the original idea. They are quickly followed by the early adopters. After them come the mass market early majority. At this stage it’s less important whether the new idea works but more that everyone else is doing it. This “safety in numbers” approach drives the next group, the late adopters, followed finally by the skeptics. However, what this bell curve model also tells us is that once the critical mass has moved in the early adopters move out and on to the next big thing.
I wonder how long it will be before someone once again starts to extoll the virtues of the office. In fact, I might just close my door, forward my phone calls, put my feet on the desk and take a few moments to ponder that very issue.