In a classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Black Knight -- played by John Cleese -- is the epitome of perseverance. He loses his arm. His other arm. His other leg. Yet he still tries to fight on. After all: "It's just a flesh wound."
The Black Knight? He's relentless.
But the member of the legendary comedy troupe has given up on the idea of open office plans.
According to Cleese, one of history's great mistakes is "the open-plan office. If I were starting a business -- and this is a great time to reinvent the workplace -- I'd give everybody an office," he says. "It's essential you're not interrupted when you're working."
While an open-plan workplace was once thought of as a way to foster cooperation and collaboration (and make monitoring whether employees were "busy" a lot easier), a 2018 Harvard study found that when employees moved from a traditional office to an open-plan office, their personal interactions didn't increase.
In fact, as the researchers write:
The volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70 percent) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.
In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.
Yep: Force people to work "together" and they actually withdraw from each other by increasing their use of email, messaging, and other electronic communication tools.
Granted, recent events make open-plan office spaces less of a productivity killer: The office plan may still be open, but social distancing means significantly fewer people inhabit those spaces.
Plus, many business owners now question the need for offices at all. Remote work works -- and can save considerably on overhead and infrastructure costs.
But many people have swapped an open-plan office workspace for an open-plan home office workspace. Many people don't have the luxury of creating a private office within their homes.
Which means they suffer the same productivity and focus problems caused by "real" open-plan offices.
So if you're a business owner who has found -- or plans to find -- cost savings through lower rent and infrastructure costs, allocate some of those funds to helping your employees create as private a space as possible within their homes. Provide noise-canceling headphones. Temporary partitions to help create a little privacy within a larger room. Desks and chairs that actually fit the space available.
If you expect your employees to work well from home, see it as your job to make it possible for them to work well at home.
Otherwise, they may be forced to swap an open-plan workspace for an open-plan home workspace. Or, worse, swap a private office for a home workspace, losing all of the benefits a "real" office affords.
Your goal is to help your employees be as productive as possible -- wherever they work.