We are all about collaboration and teamwork (and let's be honest) saving money, so open office plans are extremely popular. Your coworkers are always available to share ideas, and in the case of a hotdesking environment, you can easily move to sit next to someone who can help you with your current project.
And yet, lots of us hate it. And it turns out that we're not just whiners. There are serious downsides to the open office. Bryan Borzykowski, at BBC Capital, talks about many of the downsides of the open office, but this one caught my eye the most: Memory.
[Ce]rtain open spaces can negatively impact our memory. This is especially true for hotdesking, an extreme version of open plan working where people sit wherever they want in the work place, moving their equipment around with them.
We retain more information when we sit in one spot, says Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois. It's not so obvious to us each day, but we offload memories -- often little details -- into our surroundings, she says.
These details -- which could be anything from a quick idea we wanted to share to a colour change on a brochure we're working on -- can only be recalled in that setting.
I wonder if this is why I'll forget what I went upstairs to get when I get there, or perhaps that's just my age. But, it brings up an interesting point--our memories aren't just filed away in an easy to recall location. We need stimuli to help us recall and location is one of those.
What one of us hasn't walked into a particular venue and been flooded with a memory of something you haven't thought about for years?
When given a chance to choose, most of us like to sit in the same spot. Think back to school: When teachers didn't assign a seating chart, we all sat in the pretty much the same spot every day anyway. If you want to see a real example of how fixed in our seating positions we are, visit a strange church and arrive early and take a seat. It will confuse everyone, as you've sat "where the Jones family always sits."
Research also shows that we have trouble concentrating in an open office area, which makes sense. If you work well with music or podcasts blasting in your ears, you can tune out your co-workers with headphones, but if you need silence, you're doomed. Even with everyone silently working, there's the click-click of keyboards and the buzz of even silenced smartphones with every incoming email. And if you're doing silent work, with headphones on, you're not collaborating anyway, are you?
Having open office space saves a ton of money. No need for walls, or even separate desks. A nice long table can seat many people for the same cost as an individual desk. But, is the loss in productivity worth it?
I'm a big proponent of telecommuting, but I'm also a fan of working in groups. I think the ideal situation is one where people work from home part time and in the office part time. Likewise, in addition to private offices (or even private cubes) companies have conference rooms when we do want to collaborate. Today's technology makes it possible to instantly communicate with people who are all over the world.
The one advantage of open office space, that Borzykowski portrays as a negative is team member relationships. He writes:
Beside the cheaper cost, one main argument for the open workspace is that it increases collaboration. However, it's well documented that we rarely brainstorm brilliant ideas when we're just shooting the breeze in a crowd. Instead, as many of us know, we're more likely to hear about the Christmas gift a colleague is buying for a family member, or problems with your deskmate's spouse.
While the goal of any office is to get the work done, hearing about your colleague's marital problems can actually be a benefit. This does not mean we should get into the habit of over-sharing, but when you know your co-workers as humans, you're more likely to bond as a team. We spend a fortune in team building activities, but just having time to chat with each other can also build that team, for free.
If you know your co-workers, you're going to be more likely to see them as humans who need help from time to time. If your co-worker is going through a rough patch with her marriage of her aging mother, you'll be more willing to jump in and help her out than you will if you have no idea what's going on in her life. You're more likely to just label her as a slacker.
If you're in charge of the office space, consider shelling out the cash for private, dedicated spaces, with spaces for collaboration as well. It may be the best way to increase productivity and team bonding.