top of page
Search

The Open Office - Collaboration Myth and How to Foster Real Impactful Collaboration



In today’s workplace, open office plans have become increasingly popular as organizations strive to foster collaboration and a sense of community among employees. However, research suggests that while open floor plans may seem like a logical solution, they do not necessarily achieve the goal of improved collaboration or productivity. In fact, they can have unintended negative consequences if not properly implemented.


Today we will explore the collaboration myth of the open office, discuss challenges that arise, and offers practical solutions for organizations to truly foster impactful collaboration through alternative approaches.


The Origins of the Open Office Concept


The concept of the open office originated in the late 1950s when innovation and collaboration were increasingly valued in the workplace. Researchers at the time argued that separating employees into private offices isolated people and inhibited spontaneous interaction (Brill et al., 2001). It was thought that bringing people together into shared collaborative spaces would spur more chance interactions and spark creativity. In the 1970s and 1980s, as companies sought to cut real estate costs, the open office plan became more widespread (Appel-Meulenbroek & Groenen, 2016). While intuitive in theory, decades of research has since found that the open office Environment alone does not achieve the promised collaboration benefits.


Challenges of the Open Office Environment


Distractions and Lack of Focus


One of the most commonly cited challenges of open offices is distractions and lack of focus (Kim & De Dear, 2013). In shared spaces, employees are more prone to visual and auditory distractions from colleagues’ conversations and activities happening around them (de Vries et al., 2019). This makes focused individual work and private phone calls difficult. Studies have found that excessive noise is negatively associated with job satisfaction and increases stress levels (Oseland & Hodsman, 2018). The lack of privacy and focus reduces cognitive capacity, impairing creative and complex tasks.


Lack of Control and Territoriality


Another challenge is the lack of personal territory and control that private offices provide (Kim & De Dear, 2013). In open plans, employees have little ability to customise or control their immediate workspace. This can induce stress as workers have limited means for respite or privacy during the workday. To establish a sense of security and boundaries, workers may engage in territorial behaviors like packing up personal items at the end of each day (de Vries et al., 2019). However, this disrupts a collaborative environment. Overall, the lack of individual control reduces job satisfaction.


Strained Social Interactions


Finally, constant exposure to colleagues also means that social interactions become more difficult to manage (Ooi & Tan, 2016). Without private spaces for focused work, micro-politics and interpersonal conflicts may arise more frequently. Employees have little control over how much social interaction they have as extroverts and introverts are forced together. Over time, this can lead to social overload and depletion of cognitive resources, impacting team cohesion and performance (Kim & De Dear, 2013).


Fostering Real Collaboration Through Alternative Approaches


Given the collaboration myth of the open office environment, organizations need alternative approaches that foster impactful collaboration without its drawbacks. Some options include:


  • Hybrid work models: Implementing hybrid work models allows employees to benefit from both independent work and team interactions. Employees work remotely part-time with dedicated days in the office focused on collaboration. This provides greater work-life balance while preserving in-person connections and team-building on designated days each week. Research has found hybrid models boost productivity, engagement and work satisfaction (Golden, 2021).

  • Activity-based workspaces: Rather than assigned desks, activity-based workspaces provide different settings optimized for various tasks. Areas are designated for focused individual work, collaborative work, social interaction, phone calls and quiet spaces. Employees can self-select the appropriate space based on their task (Kim & De Dear, 2013). This gives autonomy while facilitating both independent and group work.

  • Redesigned personal workspaces: For office areas, workspaces can be redesigned to provide some separation and personalization while maintaining an open concept. Strategies include semi-private pods, adjustable screens or panels between workstations, or standing desks which encourage movement breaks and distancing. Acoustical privacy like white noise machines or sound-dampening walls also mitigate distracting noise (Appel-Meulenbroek & Groenen, 2016).

  • Digital collaboration tools: Organizations should leverage technology to promote impactful virtual collaboration that supplements in-person interactions. Tools like video conferencing, coworking apps, project management software and real-time document sharing platforms enable spontaneous engagement as well as asynchronous interactions across locations (Golden, 2021). Companies like Dropbox, Slack, Microsoft Teams are examples of digital platforms powering hybrid collaboration.

  • Leading with empathy: Above all, managers play a key role in fostering an empathic, flexible culture of collaboration. They should acknowledge that different personalities and tasks require varying work modes. Policies should support autonomous, results-focused work through a mix of independent, co-located and virtual interactions. Recognizing individual contributions regardless of workstyle also encourages inclusivity and cooperation (Ooi & Tan, 2016). An empathic, trusting leadership culture goes further than any single workspace design.


Conclusion


While open office plans aimed to promote collaboration, research shows the environment alone does not achieve this goal due to inherent challenges around distraction, lack of control and social overload. To truly foster impactful collaboration, organizations need a nuanced, multipronged approach beyond just redesigning physical spaces. Implementing hybrid work models, activity-based flexible workspaces, and digital collaboration tools allows both independent productivity and meaningful team interactions. Most importantly, managers must lead with empathy, flexibility and trust to create a collaborative culture where individuals feel empowered to contribute via their preferred work modes. A holistic, people-focused strategy is key to optimizing both collaboration and overall business performance in today’s modern workplace.


References


  • Appel-Meulenbroek, R., & Groenen, P. (2016). Creating added value through fostering collaboration in activity based work environments. Journal of Corporate Real Estate, 18(2), 111–129. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCRE-07-2016-0020

  • Brill, M., Margulis, S. T., & Konar, E. (2001). Using office design to increase productivity. Workbook, 1. Buffalo, NY: Corporate Facilities Products.

  • de Vries, H. J., van Hooft, E. A. J., & van Vianen, A. E. M. (2019). Always connected: Profiling employees’ differentiated need for connectivity with work using latent class analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 29(4), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/1359432X.2019.1707463

  • Golden, T. D. (2021). The Future of Work is Flexible: Creating Flexible Work Options and Scheduling Fairness in Hybrid Workplaces. Cornell University ILR School. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3895149

  • Kim, J., & de Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18-26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.06.007

  • Ooi, C. S., & Tan, B. C. Y. (2016). Am I more creative if I stay or go? Wayfinding in an open-plan office. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 48, 49-62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2016.07.005

  • Oseland, N., & Hodsman, P. (2018). Is open-plan office noise level linked to job dissatisfaction?. Facilities, 36(13–14), 745–757. https://doi.org/10.1108/F-06-2017-0067

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



11 views

Comments


bottom of page