Adventures of an Open Plan Prairie Dog
Workplace design is too often driven by trendy technology and wacky design leading to impressive entrance halls but vast and barren “open plan prairies”. That is one of the assertions coming from a round-table debate published by Management Today.
The print issue of June’s Management Today magazine contains a summary of a fascinating debate under the title of the Future of the Workplace. A full transcript is available online which is a more challenging read but includes more detail.
The discussion ranged across workplace design, the future of work and related topics.
Over the coming years, concern over CO2 emissions and climate change will become a major driver of remote working. In addition, it will drive a radical change in office design, moving away from the recent glass box trend which tends to trap heat (like a greenhouse, funnily enough) to one where windows are used to let in necessary light only.
The People dimension of the debate was the most substantial and centred on how to facilitate flexible working and how to maintain culture and organisational cohesion when the organisation comes together only rarely. Partly, this relates to the need to make the workplace effective for workers. I was struck by Paul Morrell’s comment that, too often, energy and budget goes into designing funky entrance halls and meeting rooms leaving the main working space as an “open plan prairie”. The phrase begets the image of the unfortunate victim of this landscape as something of an open plan prairie dog.
Prey, perhaps, to the Coyotes of Concentration? The panel observed that so many badly designed, open plan workspaces fail to consider the need for private space; to work without interruption, to concentrate and to contemplate. I think this is probably true – although from personal experience, I find that a decent set of headphones and some Thomas Blug does the job. However, I also think that if people are given the choice of where to work, they will opt to do their deep-thinking outside of the office; at home, in the park or wherever works for them. Research suggests that people feel they do this kind of work better outside of the office environment. In those circumstances, people will come into the office in order to meet, to collaborate and to enjoy the social dynamics of work.
It is also possible that flexible working employees will fulfil their social needs in some form of “third place”. This could be a employer-sponsored hub, but could equally easily be the local Costa, or some independent club (e.g. the IoD). All of which makes the task of maintaining, and imbuing, culture somewhat more difficult. I think the key here is communication. It always was, of course, but in an organisation which is dispersed communication needs to be carefully considered. Those occasions when the organisation does come together (and there is no escaping the need for some face-to-face time), need to be optimised for story-telling and fun, not for death-by-Powerpoint. Managers need to be much more active in initiating communication, both formal and informal and need to be cognisant of what Mintzberg termed the Informational aspects of their role: as Spokesperson, Disseminator and Monitor. Applications like SocialText and other “behind the firewall” social media applications, used appropriately, will have a part to play in maintaining connection and culture.
The transcript, or the magazine, is worth a read: very thought-provoking and with interesting contributions from leading thinkers in the space including Lynda Gratton, Ken Shuttleworth, Jeremy Myerson and Paul Morrell.