The trend of open workspaces began in the early 21st Century with an aim to increase collaboration among employees and reduce hierarchical barriers in the organization. The idea was to replace closed cabins and cubicles where employees felt the management was unapproachable and inaccessible, with open areas. A large number of Silicon Valley companies specially talk about the pros of open workspaces.
It is important to note that open workspaces are not only about lack of physical barriers but also collaborative software and platforms that encourage employees to closely work together. It basically means both physical and digital spaces of an organization should be open and accessible by all.
Although, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. For every company that has advocated for open workspaces, there seem to be an equal number of companies who do not encourage this particular arrangement. There have been various debates about which one is better. Open offices increase collaboration but lack privacy. Closed offices and cubicles encourage concentration on work but effective communication is not possible in this case.
It is clear that there are pros and cons to open workspaces. But with right measures and precautions, companies can overcome these cons and leverage the pros of open workspaces to make it more effective.
Pros of open workspaces
Transparent work culture:
Companies that focus on developing open workspaces are also able to promote transparency in the workplace. With the rising number of millennials in the workplace, there has been a huge shift in the way management shares information across the company. Today, everyone wants to understand what is the purpose of their actions and how do they contribute towards the overall organizational success. Employees feel that they should be aware of what their team members are working on, who do they report to, what are their goals and how does all of this fit into the bigger picture.
Here, in order to promote open workspaces, there are certain tools that companies can leverage. Employees can be given access to their Company Directory wherein they get to see how individuals at different levels and departments are interconnected. Thus, workplace transparency can become apparent not just physically (open seating arrangement) but also digitally.
There are 2 barriers to efficient communication. One is the closed seating arrangement i.e. cubicles and cabins, that makes it difficult for employees to easily approach one another or their superiors. The other is lack of tools or software that can freely facilitate communication. Open workspaces enable employees to quickly communicate with each other and respond to situations without any barriers. This is particularly helpful as small issues do not have to snowball into huge complications just because there were a lot of bureaucratic obstacles.
Secondly, communication can be further improved by adopting tools that can be integrated within the company’s existing set of software. Thus, individuals do not have to waste time by using isolated tools. They should be able to quickly interact with fellow team members. Additionally, they should also be given the ability to access issues and refer these to the concerned teammate within the mode of communication itself.
For example, a project manager should be able to give contextual feedback about a task performed well to the team members within their project management software. So the manager does not have to rely on external feedback tools to give feedback. Employees too are able to develop context about the feedback.
Lack of physical barriers encourages employees to freely interact with each other and collaborate whenever necessary. Open workspaces also ensure that information is stored in a centralized system and everyone is given access to it. Barring confidential information, it is generally accessible by employees at the bottom tier of the hierarchy to the top level management. If any new information is being updated in the system, then irrespective of the time or location, that information should be updated across everyone’s system in real time.
For example, if some members of the same office, work according to different time zones, they should still have access to same information. Any updates that take place, should be communicated to them within the tool in the form of notifications. That way, everyone stays on the same page.
Cons of open workspaces
There are also instances where companies have experienced that open workspaces do more harm than good. Many employees have complained about being distracted by a few factors that have subsequently led to a decrease in their productivity as well as morale.
Although open workspaces may appear more vibrant and active as compared to closed environments, it is not necessary that everybody prefers such an environment. Some individuals may find it hard to concentrate and focus on their tasks with all the noise around. They will be constantly distracted which could eventually affect their performance as well as productivity.
So while the purpose of open workspaces may have been to encourage more collaboration and communication, it may not be as efficient as thought to be.
Note: Companies need to also have some quiet corners where employees can quietly contemplate so that they are not overwhelmed with all the activities and noise. Similarly, any tools that are being used should come with the ability to mute notifications for specific periods. That way employees can carry on with their work uninterrupted and give it their utmost attention.
The idea behind open workspaces is to increase collaboration among employees and get everyone to freely express their views and opinions. The problem here is that this concept does not take into considerations the different types of personalities. Not everyone is outgoing or extroverts who can publicly share their views. There are some who are introverts and may find it hard to speak up. They will eventually end up agreeing with whatever the majority of the team decides despite the majority being wrong. This is a herd mentality.
Note: There need to be more than one way of getting everyone to share their opinions. Companies can also add a private/anonymous channel wherein such employees can freely speak up. Such as one on one meetings with their managers. They may have a better insight to a problem and while it is contradictory to what the majority says, they will not hesitate to share their idea.
An ideal office should consist of a balanced workspace. That is, while a majority of it could be open, there need to be areas where employees can still work in isolation as per their convenience. It will help companies to extract the benefits of both open and closed workspaces and also negate most of the cons of either arrangement.
It is fascinating to see how the workspace ergonomics can have such a long lasting impact.