Smart technology, flatter organisational structures and the high cost of commercial real estate mean open plan office space is now the norm in many workplaces. Some love it, others hate it. Rachel Morrison and Kylie Mooney debate the issue*.
In the past decade, the physical spaces many office workers find themselves in has altered dramatically. Until the turn of the century, most office workers remained bound to their desk simply because the tools to do their job were fixed in one place.
Laptops, smart phones, tablets, and other technology have enabled a significant change in the physical spaces and places where work is now carried out. This, together with the high cost of office space, has brought about a desire to use physical office space more flexibly. Examples include large, open plan offices, and “non-territorial workspaces” or “hot desks”.
There was once a time where almost every office worker had their own office (or at the very least their own desk). But now, with the trend for flat organisational structures and minimal hierarchy, even senior managers are often in open plan offices—cheek by jowl, alongside their teams. While many workers protest at what they hate about shared offices and hot desks (distraction, noise, lack of privacy, and not being allowed to “personalise” their workstation, etc), many maintain the benefits, such as cost savings and increased collegial communication and cooperation, make up for it.
Perhaps if it is done well, with genuine consideration to the activities, needs, demands and expectation of employees, the downsides can be outweighed. The two sides of this debate are presented below by Dr Rachel Morrison from AUT’s Faculty of Business, Economics and Law, who researches in work psychology and Kylie Mooney, COO of Meredith Connell, an Auckland law firm that has recently made the move to open plan work spaces.
Our research follows previous published studies that suggest that shared office spaces, and particularly hot desking, place additional demands and increased load on workers by creating an unfavourable physical working environment. In addition, we were interested in whether these workers benefited from additional social resources, such as closer working relationships and increased support.
our results indicated that coworker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open plan office arrangements
We measured job demands—the aspects of a job that require cognitive and/or emotional effort and incur physiological and psychological “costs” (eg, distraction). We also measured job resources—the aspects of a job that help in achieving work goals, reducing the impact of demands (eg, friends at work).
Data were collected from a thousand working Australians, assessing the extent to which they shared their office space with others, and the social resources available to them (co-worker friendships and supervisor support), along with their employee social liabilities (ESL)—distractions, uncooperativeness, distrust, and negative relationships.
We found that, as work environments became more shared (with hot desking being at the extreme end of the continuum), not only were there increases in social liabilities, but more surprisingly, both co-worker friendships and perceptions of supervisory support actually worsened.
Although some prior researchers in this area have claimed shared work spaces can improve social support, communication and cooperation, to our surprise, our results indicated that coworker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open plan office arrangements when compared to those with their own offices or who share offices with just one or two others. They are even significantly worse when compared to those who mainly work at home or on the road! It is possible that these shared offices may increase employees’ use of coping strategies such as withdrawal, and so may have a negative impact on team member relations when compared to private offices.
In addition, we found that perceptions of supervisor support deteriorate as work environments become more shared. As with co-worker friendship, this is in the direction opposite to what we expected. This may be related to the notion that, when workers do not see their supervisors every day, the time they do have with them is perceived to be of higher quality. It is also possible that many of the factors related to ESLs at work also negatively impact on supervision relationships, making them less satisfactory. The employee, the supervisor, or both, may be irritated, distracted, and attempting to combat this by withdrawing, thereby damaging the supervisory relationship.
Thus it seems that shared work environments increase demands without the expected buffering by social resources. Shared environments improved neither friendships nor the quality of supervision. Our results support those of other researchers in this, and related fields, finding decreased worker wellbeing (by numerous measures) in shared, open plan workspaces. Consensus among researchers is that shared office spaces, and hot-desking in particular, are not recommended for workers.
However, we acknowledge that the relentless move towards shared office environments and hot-desking, along with the flexibility and genuine cost saving they represent, is unlikely to be reversed so offer some recommendations, along with an example of “best practice” below.
RECOMMENDATIONS—IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO IT, DO IT RIGHT!
First, visual distraction from nearby co-workers can be dramatically reduced with the use of panels, bookshelves, or “green walls” of plants. Second, auditory distraction may be reduced with noise reduction equipment such as noise cancelling headphones. Both visual screens and noise reducing equipment are relatively low-cost, flexible ways to improve indoor environment quality of office workers. It is important that organisations evaluate interventions, technologies, and equipment within the context of the whole workstation, the type of work being done, and individual preferences.
Case studies of thoughtfully designed workplaces can provide solutions to many of the issues raised. For example, Pitt and Bennett, in the Journal of Facilities Management, describe a large office redesigned to include not only hot-desking, but also touchdown areas (free desks to allow quick access to information), bookable offices (rooms that can be booked in advance), collaborative workspaces (for group work, possibly with teleconferencing capabilities) and finally break-out workspaces (relaxed couches and low tables for spontaneous, informal collaborative work).
To conclude, we are not suggesting workers should be afforded unlimited privacy and solitude. We maintain that there needs to be a “critical density of spontaneous interaction” for many types of activity-based work to succeed. Too much and the distractions will outweigh any potential collaborative benefits. Too little and the benefits are not evident. Meredith Connell have incorporated most, if not all of these recommendations into the recent successful move to open plan offices, demonstrating that, if it is done well, the negative outcomes of open plan offices can be minimised, and the positive aspects enhanced.
Up until last year our 200 Auckland staff had their own offices, spread over five floors. The décor was dated and not fit for purpose, so we decided to find new premises on the expiry of our lease. In order to help us understand our current and future workspace requirements, we undertook a workplace strategy facilitated by architects Warren and Mahoney.
every person, from the Crown Solicitor to the office junior, has exactly the same workstation
As a result of that work, in March 2016 Meredith Connell moved into a custom fit-out in BDO House (Graham St, Auckland CBD). We are now on one, 3200sqm floor; working in an open plan environment.
No one has an office—including partners—and every person, from the Crown Solicitor to the office junior, has exactly the same workstation. We have a centralised kitchen, the office is light, airy and filled with over 1200 plants. We are thrilled with the results and the impact on our organisation has been immensely positive.
Outlined below are the key stages that helped us achieve a great fit-out and a smooth transition to our new work environment.
RESEARCH AND PLANNING
We did a lot of research. We looked at existing open plan offices in Auckland, Wellington and Sydney. This was invaluable in helping us understand the potential of a new fit out and gave us an opportunity to talk with other organisations about what worked and what didn’t.
The workplace strategy was critical in helping us design the space. We held workshops and qualitative interviews with selected staff, surveyed all staff on how they wanted to work, and had an architecture intern monitoring how we used our space. Very clear themes began to emerge:
- We wanted to be on as few floors as possible;
- We needed somewhere for individual, focused work;
- We needed space where we could work with others;
- Junior lawyers wanted more access to seniors in the team;
- People wanted to feel more connected to the organisation;
- Improved IT;
- A more modern working environment.
Interestingly, no one specifically stated that they needed an office.
The feedback from the strategy informed our design and we were able to address these requests by providing:
- One floor with glass walls giving greater visibility across the firm;
- A dedicated library with a high acoustic rating;
- Twenty-nine collaboration rooms;
- Every team has a large bar leaner for impromptu team meetings or to work;
- Every person has their own workstation laid out using a spine system;
- A centralised kitchen where everyone can meet;
- We have maximised the natural light and views with the workstations on the periphery of the office, not in the centre;
- Partners are seated in the middle of their teams so that staff have easier access to them. This has meant we are more responsive to clients and are sharing information more readily.
We were very clear on the goals and objectives we were trying to achieve. This was one of the most critical factors to the project’s success and these goals became the touchstone for our decision making.
MANAGING THE CHANGE
Meredith Connell consults widely within the organisation whenever we undertake change and this project was no exception. We actively communicated from the minute the project began, including frequent emails, intranet missives and lunchtime information sessions. Because we had limited opportunity for site visits, due to construction, we gave staff copies of floor plans, photos and virtual tours. We provided information on the new location including practical information regarding local amenities and transport routes.
We set up a workstation in our old lunchroom for staff to experience the new set-up prior to the move.
Partners and staff were involved on the project and design team, giving input into the work stations, soft furnishings, wallpaper and colour choices. We made sure we included a partner who was actively against the move to open plan offices on the change team. He was a great addition as he tested our thinking, and knowing he was on the team provided comfort to those who were apprehensive about the move.
We held a firm-wide vote on the desk chairs, and staff selected their own workstation accessories. We set up a workstation in our old lunchroom for staff to experience the new set-up prior to the move. In addition, everyone now has an electric sit-to-stand desk, there is sparkling water available on tap, and we have fabulous coffee machines.
As part of the move we had two sub-projects. The first of these was to reduce our paper storage—which we managed to do by 60 percent prior to our move. The second project was all around IT, and included the introduction of dual screens, 4G laptops with docking stations that connect automatically to WiFi when undocked, video conferencing and wireless headsets for phones.
The objective was to ensure we could work in alternative spaces and move around the office while remaining connected to the network. We also relocated all our servers offsite. The IT projects were undertaken eight months prior to our shift to ensure everyone had time to adapt.
Communication was key. While we made information available on the intranet and email, we found the best way to communicate was by appointing a change representative from each team. Their job was to attend regular meetings and convey these updates to their team and feed back to the project managers.
Given we were radically changing the way we were going to be working, we implemented our “Ways of Working” guidelines. These were written by our staff and were designed to let people know how to use the different work environments. For example, in the library turn your phone off, no eating, and no talking.
On the first morning, as everyone arrived at Graham St, they were greeted at the front door by our managing partner and me. We gave them a floor plan, access cards and directions to where they were seated. There was a gift on each desk with a welcome note. We asked everyone to unpack their boxes and meet us in our new boardroom for morning tea. By 10am most people had unpacked and were enjoying a sausage roll and coffee.
the overwhelming majority of staff reported being satisfied with the new working environment
The first few months in the new space were positive and things have gone from strength to strength since. Some of the benefits include:
- An increase in revenue;
- It has been easier to recruit;
- There is a greater feeling of belonging and a sense of being “one firm”;
- People are proud of their work space, we’ve noticed staff taking their partners, parents and even grandparents on tours around the office.
Eight months after we moved, AUT undertook a research study on our fit-out and move. They had a response rate of 56 percent and the overwhelming majority of staff reported being satisfied with the new working environment.
We are incredibly proud of the outcomes we’ve achieved and have shown our offices to many organisations undertaking a fit out, in the same way we were helped when going through this process.
Article by Dr RACHEL MORRISON a senior research lecturer from the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at AUT and KYLIE MOONEY, COO of Meredith Connell.
*This article first appeared in Employment Today, New Zealand’s leading publication on HR management and employment law.