Your bosses are watching you
UNDER THE SCANNER An open office can be both productive and collaborative if built intelligently. The right balance of private and open spaces is a must
The walls are down, boss is keeping an eye on you, colleagues are exchanging ideas across the table and more than one pair of eyes are judging your 5 pm departure from office — does that sound familiar?
Today, many offices across the world follow the open office model. These types of floor plans are believed to promote collaboration and creativity and tech giants such as Facebook and Google have definitely popularised the layout. Facebook even hired world-renowned architect Frank Gehry to design its new campus, which it claims is the largest open-plan office in the world.
However, a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.
“Collaboration has become the big engine for progress and innovation for organisations all over the world. Undoubtedly, successful collaboration requires giving co-workers easy access to each other. But it also requires giving each individual the time and place to focus and recharge. Many workplaces today are not delivering on privacy as a necessity. Too much interaction and not enough privacy have reached crisis proportions, taking a heavy toll on workers’ creativity, productivity, engagement and well-being,” says Uli Gwinner, president, Steelcase, APAC.
A study by Steelcase titled Privacy Crisis revealed that 98% of Indian employees feel privacy is the main factor hampering their productivity. Hence, the need for privacy in an open office environment is crucial. Defining privacy in today’s scenario, Gwinner says, “While privacy traditionally was thought of in acoustical, visual and territorial dimensions, organisations today have to think more broadly. Privacy is the ability to control internal and external stimuli. Employees should be empowered to control what others can know about them and to manage distractions. It’s about establishing a culture which values and respects a person’s need to have privacy throughout the day.”
Psychological ly, the repercussions of open offices are relatively straightforward. “Due to lack of privacy, an employee’s performance can go for a toss. Constant fear of being watched and monitored cannot only make one nervous, but can also modify his/her behaviour,” says Rohit Aggarwal, founder and CEO, Koenig Solutions.
Having said that, many organisations believe that knocking down physical barriers has brought transpar- ency and increased communication in the workplace. Open spaces symbolise equality as they break hierarchical structures, feels Amit Sinha, vice-president, business and people at Paytm. “Dissolving walls encourages a healthy exchange of ideas and on-the-spot brainstorming. It promotes knowledge sharing and learning and allows an employee to approach his/her colleagues and resolve the issue at the earliest,” he says.
Reiterating the same, Dr Chandan Chowdhury, managing director-India, Dassault Systèmes, says, “Open spaces give one a feeling of camaraderie which encourages teamwork and boosts productivity. Interactions in an open-plan office space are more frequent and informal than in closed environments where everyone has a separate office space.”
So, how can open-plan offices be made to work better for employees? Proposing a solution, Geetika Mehta, director HR, Urban Ladder, says, “An open office can be both productive and collaborative. Such offices need to be built intelligently to ensure the right balance of private and open spaces.” At Urban Ladder, employees enjoy flexible seating arrangements. “We have ‘jump spaces’ for employees who find it difficult to work on their desks due to noise. We also have separate smaller rooms, booths and balconies to attend to phonecalls,” says Mehta.
Besides usual private spaces, Paytm has breakout areas on the floor where employees can enjoy their ‘me-time’. “Office planners should ensure enough space for each person. Also, there should be some guidelines on things that may disturb others, such as playing music. These guidelines, if communicated to people at the time of induction can help,” says Sinha.
Koenig Solutions has special seating arrangements for people who want to talk loudly and study. Also, there are phone booths for people to make phone calls, meeting rooms and an inhouse library where employees can study in silence. “We have witnessed an increase in employ- ee productivity. Some people find it inspiring and can be creative while working in a crowded, noisy environment, others prefer quiet spaces and at times they want a mix of both. The workplace needs to offer a variety of public and private spaces,” says Aggarwal. Meher Sarid, president-corporate affairs (marketing, communications, HR, quality and service excellence), Oxigen Services India, says even within a single company, individual departments have different needs. Employees who regularly discuss sensitive information, such as those in human resources or legal departments, may need more privacy than those who work in sales. “Companies thinking about how to structure their offices should research what best fits their employees’ needs, rather than simply following the trend. Open offices may seem better suited to younger workers, many of whom multi-task for most of their short careers,” she says.
While some people prefer sitting next to a wall, others like to be in the centre of the room so they’re in the middle of the action. Some may want to sit next to quiet colleagues while others want a more talkative neighbour to bounce ideas back and forth with. Hence, accommodating different work styles is the way to go, says Steve Correa, executive vice-president and head - HR, United Spirits Limited. “We maintain a balance by providing a variety of options instead of a single assigned seat for each employee. Throughout the day, employees can select an appropriate environment to accomplish the task at hand,” he says.