Stephen Cummings, Professor of Strategic Management and Head of Victoria Management School at Victoria University, along with Associate Professor Torkild Thanem and Sara Värlander (both from Stockholm University) investigated the effect on open office designs on employee behaviour.
“The intent of taking away dividing walls and doors is usually to improve creativity and performance by fostering spontaneous fun, interaction and sharing,” says Professor Cummings.
“However, we found evidence that it can lead to attempts by employees to re-create spatial and social structures and boundaries, actually undermining the behaviours an organisation is trying to encourage.”
Professor Cummings says that because open office designs make their inhabitants visible to colleagues and managers, many people feel ‘watched’, less relaxed and on edge.
One of the companies the researchers observed had recently changed its office design from small individual offices to an open office layout. While interviews with staff suggested the feeling of belonging to a team was strengthened by seeing each other every day, many began openly monitoring the arrival and departure times and breaks of their colleagues.
“An interesting flow-on effect was that the number of sick days among employees decreased significantly after the re-design.
“This could indicate either that employees were more satisfied with the new arrangement or that employees were more aware of being ‘under surveillance’ by their peers.”
Although spontaneous interaction was made easier by the open design, loud discussions were disturbing to others. Some employees mentioned the lack of privacy led them to adopt a more rigid identity at work, feeling the design left less room for their private selves and innovation.
Another company that the researchers analysed promoted itself as a ‘fun place to work, with a fantastic team atmosphere’. Rooms were large and open, and ‘hot-desking’ (moving between different workspaces) was encouraged. There were also a number of themed activity rooms for employees to socialise in.
“Although hot-desking was promoted in principle, most teams marked out their territory with posters, slogans and personal items, even moving furniture to create their own personalised space, which seemed to put other teams off moving into that space,” says Professor Cummings.
“Employees also tended to use the activity rooms in their established team groups at separate times rather than mingling with other teams.”
Professor Cummings says the effect was to foster a competitive and performance-oriented team culture, but some employees claimed this approach made the organisation more fragmented than other organisations they’d worked for.
“It’s clear that employers need to think carefully before changing the layout of an office—simply taking down walls and telling employees to ‘relax and have fun’ is not the same as fostering creativity. A mixed layout of open and private spaces that enables people to determine the environment that suits them and their particular purposes will likely be more effective.”