The final verdict on the open office.

What I am telling you in a minute is nothing even near news. But I understood that advertising lives by lots of repetition of the message. So I reckon this article was needed once more.

Today I saw this article on LinkedIn: ‘Why your open office does not work‘ on Forbes. In a way it gets tiring to read these articles but on the other hand, they are still needed to voice some concerns of what is going on.

The article gives you the outcomes of a study performed on a group of women doing series of tasks in an open office with lots of low-level noise and others in a quiet office. It was written to differ the views of e.g. Eric Schmidt and many others that open offices are good and increase collaboration (simply stated). Open offices are the new standard. First the concept was mainly based on the desire to make offices denser and cutting costs and later on, we threw in ‘collaboration’ as an advantage. And both are often possible and have some truth in it. Putting people in an open space and more people in per square meter/foot will definitely stimulate collaboration. We only have to look at how people act at parties, in clubs, and festivals to see this is true. But work is not all party.

Open offices are part of a phenomenon called ‘activity based working’. By putting the people by default in more dense open spaces and adding some other workplace typologies for doing ‘other’ activities, you are working ‘activity based’. In itself ‘activity based’ like ‘new way of working’ and ‘open offices’ are all just a way and not THE way. But unfortunately, many organizations and consultants push this way forward for a feeling of being innovative and forward thinking. That is how we ended up with the unhappy, unconcentrated employee in large numbers.

The point in all this is that organizations all make the same fault over and over again. By being ‘blinded’ by the terms stated above, they start to already ‘envision’ how ‘activity based working’ could work for them. And with the tons of articles about the success of these workplace concepts the decision is often quickly made.

But the big problem is that they did not answer the questions: ‘Why are we working the way we are and how would that need to change for us to improve it?’ If you take a blank sheet and just measure up your own way of working, what is good and bad about that? And what ways make up the most of the business value? And will expanding the environment you thrive in so well, also equally increase the business value? The most successful organizations did not listen to others but to themselves.

So the ‘open office’ says nothing in itself. It is just a name for a way of furnishing a part of an office floor. It does suit some teams based on their work characteristics and goals but it for sure is no ‘pill’ to cure most work environment headaches.

The best thing you can do is ‘view’, ‘think’, ‘question’ and ‘challenge’. Take a look at how you are working, what is specific to your organization’s way of working? And how did that came about? And question these ways; as ‘ways, manners and habits’ are tougher than weed. But maybe they are that good! And if you all took a good look at why and how you do things, challenge yourself with looking at these processes and use ‘user centered design’ to maybe re-imagine some of your ways of working to do them better. Put the people and their goals first in all cases.

Your work in your organization is unique. And the more unique you make it, the more result you will gain from it. By adopting what worked for others there are little guarantees that it will bring you any competitive advantage.

Work is a beautifully complex design of activities, relations and its context. Make your ‘art of work’ and be remembered 🙂

KR, Eelco Voogd