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In a paper published last week, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein and co-author Stephen Turban set out to measure the impact of open offices on how employees communicate in the workplace, using sociometric devices to track employee interactions at Fortune 500 companies that were transitioning to open office plans. Quartz’s Lila MacLellan explains their counterintuitive findings:
In two studies, the researchers found that conversations by email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly after the office redesign, while productivity declined, and, for most people, face-to-face interaction decreased. Participants in the first study spent 72% less time interacting in person in the open space. Before the renovation, employees had met face to face for nearly 5.8 hours per person over three weeks. In the after picture, the same people held face-to-face conversations for only about 1.7 hours per person.
These employees were emailing and IM-ing much more often, however, sending 56% more email messages to other participants in the study. This is how employees sought the privacy that their cubicle walls once provided, the authors reason. IM messages soared, both in terms of messages sent and total word count, by 67% and 75%, respectively.
Bernstein’s paper adds to the growing body of research questioning the value of open-plan offices, which came into vogue in the US over the past decade as part of an effort to make the office environment more interactive and collaborative. Critiques of the practice usually focus on the distractions and lack of privacy an open office provides; the proliferation of open offices in the US has even been suggested as a possible factor contributing to the spread of the flu virus in American workplaces during winter.
Other research, like Bernstein’s, has found that open offices don’t improve employee communication as advertised, and can even have the opposite effect. A major study in Australia in 2016, for example, found that workers in open offices form poorer relationships with their colleagues and managers, making fewer friends at work and seeing their supervisors less supportive.
The British multinational financial firm Barclays is using tracking devices at its London headquarters to monitor how much time employees spend at their desks, Bloomberg reported on Friday. The OccupEye devices, made by the UK company Cad-Capture, are designed to let companies analyze traffic patterns in the workplace as a way to identify underused space and figure out how to reduce their overall office footprint:
There was a “phased roll-out” of the devices, and Barclays staff and the Unite union were notified before they were installed, although the bank did not send out a specific memo about them, according to spokesman Tom Hoskin. The Barclays employees said they don’t remember being informed about the boxes, but spokespeople for the bank said there have been no official human-resources complaints. …
“The sensors aren’t monitoring people or their productivity; they are assessing office space usage,” the bank said in an emailed statement. “This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption, or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments.”
As remote and flexible work options become available, “hot desking,” which eschews assigned desks and allows companies to operate with fewer than one workstation per employee, is becoming increasingly popular among London banks and other companies operating in high-cost areas as a way to save money by reducing the size of their offices. Some proponents of hot desks say they enable greater collaboration, but critics counter that they limit employees’ autonomy and control over their space, while making it more difficult to form workplace relationships because the people they sit next to change from day to day.
Presentation of Employee Monitoring Tech at Microsoft Build 2017 (Brian Smale/Microsoft)
Build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference taking place in Seattle this week, is focusing heavily this year on AI and machine learning, and how the company plans to embed these technologies in the workplace of the near future. Wednesday’s keynote demonstrations showcased what Mark Sullivan at Fast Company calls “a vision of the workplace of the future where workers are surrounded by all manner of cameras, sensors, and other recording devices connected to internet-based AI services”:
Microsoft showed demos and videos of the “intelligent edge” in a variety of forms, in a variety of use cases, and in a variety of industries:
- A heart patient was walking around wearing a sensor. He began to get tired, so the sensor sent that data up to the cloud for processing, and a nurse was notified to bring him a wheelchair.
- A camera detected an employee accidentally tipping over a barrel containing a dangerous chemical, information it sent up to image-recognition software in the cloud. Some other database likely helped determine that the liquid in the barrel was hazardous. Presumably an alarm was sent to a cleanup team.
- An employee in a shop was spotted taking a selfie while brandishing a jackhammer. The brain in the cloud recognized the employee, the activity, and the setting and concluded he was behaving recklessly, then contacted a supervisor.
- Someone else in a shop was seen not wearing safety goggles. Alarm. Supervisor notified.
All this involves some sophisticated, on-the-fly AI. In the words of the presenter demoing the intelligent edge developer tools at Build: “The solution is running more than 27 million recognitions per second across people, objects, and activities.” But the use cases Microsoft showed onstage sound equal parts helpful and intrusive. Sure, getting a heart patient back to bed or detecting a dangerous chemical spill are health-promoting. But the notifications to the supervisor suggest a completely different, and possibly unintended, consequence of the technology.
“There is benevolent surveillance and then there is just surveillance,” Sullivan worries, “and the Microsoft technology could work in both scenarios.” But CEO Satya Nadella spent part of his time on the Build stage Wednesday dispelling the notion that Microsoft is out to turn the workplace into a surveillance state:
The advent of the coworking space has been a boon to freelancers, startups, and nonprofit organizations, but last summer, the flexible workplace vendor WeWork revealed that its long-term strategy involved selling the coworking experience to major legacy corporations as well. On Wednesday, WeWork’s chief product officer David Fano and head of product research Joshua Emig announced that their company was working on a suite of “space as a service” offerings to help big companies revamp and better manage their existing office spaces, Fast Company’s Ruth Reader reports:
The new offerings would include everything from building out interiors to managing guests, booking conference rooms, coordinating events, analyzing office data on space usage, and providing a human community manager to instill WeWork philosophies. …
[Fano] says WeWork is only willing to architect and construct offices because it has design principles that play into how it manages office spaces. Additionally, he’s not looking to make money on overhauling other people’s workplaces. Rather, he and Emig see it as a way to give customers the cost savings that WeWork enjoys, because of its vendor relationships. The build-out also serves to entice businesses into its cultural management subscription as well as other possible uses for WeWork. As an example, Fano described how it whittled one Chicago business from three floors of office space down to two floors, while retaining the same number of employees. WeWork made up some of the square footage loss by giving the company desks inside of its own co-working network.
At Quartz, Alison Griswold points out that WeWork’s $17 billion valuation is “largely tied to WeWork’s ability to brand itself as more than just another property management firm”:
Over the past year, multiple studies have observed an effect whereby employees who work in close proximity to high performers tend to do a better job themselves, generating a lot of interest in the concept of “strategic seating,” or maximizing performance and collaboration merely by rearranging employees’ desks. This notion has led the mobile payment company Square to post a job listing for a “capacity coordinator” for whom workplace seating management” will be a full-time job, as Quartz’s Sarah Kessler discovered earlier this week:
The person in this role will maintain seating records in Office Space, Square’s workplace management tool, perform capacity analysis, and manage cross-functional seating projects in collaboration with a wide range of people, from facilities vendors to team leads. … Square, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story, will be far from the first company to agonize over the optimal placement of its employees (and managing a large seating chart can be a thorny challenge, as anyone who has planned a wedding can attest). But it may be one of the first to need a full-time worker to tell people where to sit.
This role may look silly at first glance, but there seems to me to be a valuable lesson here about how Square is approaching the development of its organizational culture.
Most organizations look to the symbols of a more innovative culture—such as free lunch, or an open-plan office to encourage collaboration—and conclude that putting these in place will automatically create the culture they’re looking for. However, cultural symbols derive their power from previously ingrained behaviors and mindsets. That’s why they’re symbols: Only when they’re taken away are they fully appreciated.
This is what makes Square’s approach so interesting. They are actively managing the symbolism of the office floor plan and now even using the floor plan as an active management tool to foster certain behaviors. It’ll be fascinating to see what they come up with. Here’s to their success.
In the age of the mobile workforce, “hot desk,” flexible desk or hoteling systems have emerged as a way for organizations to conserve office space and create a more dynamic work environment by doing away with assigned desks and instead having employees reserve desk space as they require it. Along with other aspects of the open office trend, hot-desking has been criticized by some occupational researchers who say that employees forced to share working spaces can be less productive, more distracted, and have worse relationships and more conflicts.
Ethnographer Alison Hirst spent three years studying the open-plan, hot-desk environment from the inside, and recently published the findings of her study. At the Conversation, Hirst discusses what she learned about how a hot desk system can affect certain employees more adversely than others:
Hot-desking tends to affect different employees in different ways. There is often a subtle division between those who can “settle” and reliably occupy the same desk every day, and those who cannot.
Settlers arrive first, choose their preferred desk, and by repeating their choice over time, establish this desk as “their” space. Settlers can secure the best desk space (often near the windows), can furnish their desks with all the materials and equipment needed for work, and can sit near their closest colleagues. These routines are advantageous. Contrary to popular belief, these kinds of habits enable creativity because they enable us to put mundane matters (like finding a seat near to people we know) into the background and direct our attention onto problem-solving and innovation.
Employees who for various reasons (such as childcare responsibilities or part-time status) arrive later in the day don’t have a similar choice of desk space.
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While the open office was devised as a way to make workplaces more social, creative, and collaborative, many professionals have already soured on the trend, which caught on relatively recently in the US. The promised increases in productivity, happiness, and collaboration haven’t shown up; in fact, some studies have found the opposite. Now opponents of the open office can add another arrow to their quiver of research disproving the theory. At the Conversation, business professor Rachel Morrison shares the findings of her and her colleagues’ research, which showed that employees who don’t have their own space tend to suffer for it:
Our research found that there were increases in “employee social liabilities” in shared working spaces: distractions, uncooperativeness, distrust, and negative relationships. More surprisingly, both coworker friendships and perceptions of supervisor support actually worsened. Although prior researchers have claimed shared work spaces can improve social support, communication, and cooperation, our results indicated that coworker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open-plan arrangements when compared to those with their own offices or who share offices with just one or two others. It is possible that these shared offices may increase employees’ use of coping strategies such as withdrawal and create a less friendly environment in a team.