The failure of open-office plans to ignite new sparks of creativity is just one in a long series of events suggesting that most workplaces still haven’t caught up to the way knowledge workers function.
A study suggests that rather than fostering spontaneous creativity and collaboration, open office plans have the opposite effect. The study, which was coauthored by Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein, found that employees who work in an open office tend to retreat behind headphones to tune out the noise and avoid excess contact with their coworkers.
To conduct the study, Bernstein and his team studied two Fortune 500 companies that shifted to an open-office environment from a prior setting that offered more privacy.
For several weeks, participants wore “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones to track their interactions, as well as allowing researchers to check their e-mail and instant-messenger use. After analyzing the data, researchers found that after the move to open-plan offices, workers spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, while use of e-mail rose 67% and instant-messenger use climbed 75%.
Not only that, but the workers in the study interacted with different groups of people online than they did in person, a strategy which Bernstein contends could “have profound effects on productivity and the quality of work.”
The failure of open-office plans to ignite new sparks of creativity is just one in a long series of events suggesting that most workplaces still haven’t caught up to the way knowledge workers actually function.
Roughly 100 years ago, when Henry Ford created the industrial assembly line, workers did function more or less like cogs in a wheel. While they weren’t interchangeable on a human level, the work was quasi-mechanical. In fact, to this day the main thing an assembly-line worker needs is to be able to perform the same task very consistently countless times in a row.
Approximately 50 years ago, the computer began to creep into the work life of most workers in First World nations. Gradually, computers stopped being simply replacements for typewriters and began to permit the performance of creative, thought-intensive work on a scale unheard of in prior generations. While some employers rode the wave and made their fortunes on the backs of well-educated knowledge workers, others still relied on command-and-control work models that treat these workers as interchangeable.
Now, here we are, in a world in which the Internet continues to even out the boundaries between large and small companies, home-based and office workers, freelancers and employed folks. While the location and the timing of work continues to shift, an amazing number of employers still treat people like cogs and ask for little or no input before they make major decisions.
If the rise and fall of the open-office concept is any indication, many employers continue to feel that they can treat knowledge workers as though they were on an assembly line that can be controlled from above. Even if it’s small and includes few management layers between front-line staff and leaders, your practice may have fallen victim to this thinking.
If so, consider this your chance to reconsider. While you can’t accommodate everyone’s idiosyncrasies, your practice can create an environment in which all the services you offer are delivered by people who feel their needs are being met.