Unintended Consequences of Work Space Design

Is your office making you unproductive? According the Wall Street Journal and the study they reference, yes.

I’ve lived through this lub-dub cycle a couple of times in my career. More “open” and “collaborative” workspaces is one of the mythic magic potions managers believe will spur a company’s culture into producing stellar growth.

The problem is…it doesn’t work.

In my experience, people will find ways to get some privacy and these days, there are a lot more options to do that. They’ll camp out in a meeting room or go find a quiet corner at the local coffee shop. 

They get less done at work since open spaces create more opportunities for interruptions. I use to sit with two work mates in a tight space. We noticed that when two of us were there, we talked much less than when all three was there. Like Metcalfe’s Network Law, the third person in the network increased the odds that we’d happen upon conversations one or the other would find interesting. 

Often a conversation might start between A and B, then C would find something said to be interesting and jump in. A might even drop out because he found the subject uninteresting. But, having C there, made it more likely that the conversation would continue. 

Beliefs in office layout schemes does produce growth for office furniture makers and moving companies, though.

Additionally, the guests in the Harvard Business Review podcast from April even say that group brainstorming may not be as good or any better than individual concentration.

This, too, is something I have confirmed with my experience where I’ve seen group brainstorming sessions used as domains for folks who like the sound of their own voice. I have, however, seen group brainstorming sessions work well when everyone in the group felt comfortable with each other.

I’m not sure if this would work any better, but what I would like to see work groups within a company have more say in how their space is laid out. There is a lot of resistance to this at most firms, where it is someone’s job to order office furniture and move it. They will argue for efficiency and economies of scale for making larger purchases and never will the benefits of more productivity be weighed against the costs of less efficiency.

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