Managing, Productivity

How open-plan offices kill collaboration and creativity

Colin Ellis /

I speak a lot at conferences on how organisations can become more agile. How to throw off the shackles that have been stifling creativity, collaboration, communication and faster value delivery. One of my recommendations is to stop doing the very thing that organisations seem to think increases agility: going open plan.

If you’re the cynical sort, then it’s very easy to scoff at the current move to be more agile. After all, you’ve seen things like ISO9000, Lean, Six Sigma and PRINCE2 all come and go with little, if any, lasting change. They’re all seen as management fads, implemented because others were doing likewise, without understanding what it would take for them to have a positive effect on the culture of the organisation.

As methods of improving the way things get done, they are all perfectly sound and there are great examples of where they’ve been done well. And what makes them work, is the fact the culture of the organisation had been deliberately evolved to ensure senior management role modelled the behaviours they wanted to see of others, the staff had a mindset that was accepting of new ideas and the brilliant jerks that had held the organisation back for so long, were shown the door, never to return on contract six months later.

For everyone else, there’s open plan.

Now, open plan has many forms, but fundamentally, it’s about standardising the working environment to something that’s more cost-effective.

And standardising the way that everyone works is definitely cheaper. But hey, we’re moving to the gig economy anyway, so no-one really needs a desk anymore, right? Not only that, but according to The Wall Street Journal, a privately conducted survey of 138 employers in the US found that by 2021, 52% plan to replace open-plan desks with “first-come, first-served desks, plus additional workspaces with names like huddle rooms and touchdown spaces”.

So, that’s on its way next. Huddle rooms.

But that’s the future, what about the here and now?

Where was I? Oh yes, magic bullets.

Open plan is still being sold as a solution that will transform the way people communicate and collaborate, when in fact, the research shows it does precisely the opposite. Last year a Harvard University study found email went up by 67%, the use of messaging tools by 75% and (drum roll please) face-to-face collaboration time actually reduced by 73% when open plan working spaces were introduced.

The strange thing about me writing this piece is I actually like open plan. I like hearing the conversation, I like hearing a background buzz of noise. Better still, I like sitting next to someone different every day and spreading out across a high bench(I know where everything is, don’t worry), only to do it all again the next day. Yep, I’m that guy.

And there are many more extroverts like me. We’re unapologetically louder than everyone else, and when it comes to energy, we’re like death-eaters: we need it from other people so we can be our best selves.

But 75% of the world’s population (this is an estimate, I haven’t counted them or got them to take a personality test … yet) isn’t like me, and therefore, they require something different to do their best work.

Some people want their workspace to be like a library. Quiet, with minimal noise, and definitely no eating or phone conversations. A safe refuge where there are few interruptions and no need for constant human interaction. Where there are reference books at hand and possibly a laminated framework as a reminder of the right way to do things.

Some people want to decorate their workspace with pictures of their family, paintings by children, thank you cards or green living things. They have a pharmacy amount of drugs in their drawers to help others and a seat nearby in case anyone wants to pop by for a chat.

And some want something minimal and functional, with cleaning products in their bottom drawer. Somewhere with a coat rack to hang their suit jacket and somewhere flat to stand a trophy or their framed MBA. A place that’s perpetually at right angles to the carpet tiles with a clearly defined working space and an in/out tray for their work.

Open plan doesn’t offer this. It offers standard. And no individual is standard. We all have different needs when it comes to workspace and the great organisation cultures of the world understand this.

They don’t impose open plan on everyone and expect conversations to happen as a result. They allow their people (it’s called trust) to create the kind of environment they need to do their best work and then create spaces where people can come together to get things done.

These cultures are bound by an aspirational vision that they’re striving towards, a set of values they hold dear and behaviours they all agree to abide by.

In the rush to become more agile, organisations need to remember to embrace the pure brilliance of individuality and humanity. What keeps people together is the culture they co-create and how they hold themselves account to it. When they’re happy in their job they’re delivering the most value as quickly as they possibly can to their customers in a way that they enjoy.

Creating a space tailored to one’s own preferences may not be the fastest, cheapest thing to do, but it will pay dividends in the long run.

Don’t be lazy with your cultural evolution, instead, put your staff in charge of it. Give them the responsibility to take a couple of days to define what it is they collectively need to do to hit the targets they’ve been set. In my years working with teams on this, never once have they said, ‘we need to go open plan and standardise the way everyone works!’

Open plan will kill agility in the same way it has killed creativity. You have a choice.

NOW READ: Open-plan offices: A love-hate relationship at work

NOW READ: Why you should worry if your boss says: ‘We’re going agile!’

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Colin Ellis

Colin Ellis is a people and culture expert from colindellis.com.

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