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Why open plan offices might be sinking social business

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Why open plan offices might be sinking social business

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It’s hard to find a workplace now that doesn’t have open plan offices in them.  With innovation something most companies are striving for, this kind of workplace is supposed to encourage collaboration amongst employees.  That it’s also cheaper to have employees together in a smaller space is an added bonus.

An extensive new study casts some serious doubts on this claim however.  The researchers surveyed over 42,000 employees across over 300 sites to gauge from them their satisfaction with their working conditions.  Open plan offices were by far the most common form of layout, with 2/3 of respondents working in such an environment, compared to around 1/4 who enjoyed a private office.

The research revealed that employees who enjoyed a private office were the happiest with their workspace.  Their open-plan colleagues by contrast expressed dissatisfaction with the noise levels in their workspace, which is perhaps not all that noteworthy given the frequency of such proclamations.  Does the increases in collaboration outweigh these noise related quibbles though?

Well, no, and what’s more, the research also called into doubt the heuristic that open plan offices increase collaboration.  The study found that people in private offices were much happier with the ease with which they could interact with colleagues than their open-plan peers.  Moreover, analysis showed that scores on ease of interaction did not offset open-plan workers’ dissatisfaction with noise and privacy issues in terms of their overall satisfaction with their workspace.

“Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction,” the researchers concluded. They added: “… considering previous researchers’ finding that satisfaction with workspace environment is closely related to perceived productivity, job satisfaction and organisational outcomes, the open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”

This matters.  An estimated 80% of social business projects fail to deliver the kind of results expected of them, and a major reason for that is the culture has not changed.  It’s no good buying some new software and hoping people will collaborate.  What you’re trying to do is change the behaviours of your employees, and to do that you need to create an environment that encourages those behaviours.

So if collaboration is something you’re striving to achieve, maybe it’s worth looking again at your open plan office before you invest in any software.

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