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  • Writer's pictureMason Inc.

Does interaction equal open office productivity?


Is spontaneous interaction between non-team members a path to productivity?

Earlier this month Kate Baggott posted an article on B2B News Network. In Open concept vs. cubicles – What’s right for your office? she notes that:

“there are three key assumptions every company needs to address before deciding to go cubical or open concept or, more radically, with a mix of the two.”

  • Is maximizing your use of space to save real estate expenses your top priority?

  • Does spontaneous interaction between “non-team members” make for a more productive office?

  • Are quiet spaces and privacy a priority?

Be sure to check out the article for her take. But here, we want to look at question number two.

Does interaction = productivity

Proponents of the open-office philosophy tout the benefits of having members of different teams running into each other and engaging in impromptu conversations about their work.

Maybe someone from the marketing team is sitting near someone from accounting in an open-office lounge area or the cafe. Mr. Accountant asks Ms. Marketer, “What are you working on?”. She explains the social media campaign is developing. He now understands why the $1,000 a month she spends on social media advertising is beneficial to the company’s bottom line. He mentions that the firm is running behind on its profit target for the first quarter. Then she decides to spend a few hours fine-tuning the social media campaigns and save the company $200. Etc., etc..

But does this type of interaction happen and lead to open office productivity?

The problem with open offices is that they are often poorly designed. This results in constant opportunities for people to be interrupted in their work. Maybe every single employee passes the IT guy on the way to their space. They can’t resist and pester him with niggling questions. Ones they could answer themselves via a quick Google search.

Another problem is that people are distracted by the ten people sitting around them. Their co-workers are talking on their phones, gossiping with their new BFF, or humming to themselves while listening to music. So that person puts her headphones on to drown the distractions out. Soon everyone is listening to music.

Guess what? There is little of the interaction, collaboration, and creativity promised by the proponents of the open-office. People don’t have any privacy, so they retreat into themselves.

How do you make the open office work?

Stations divided by proper height panels do some things that create a “sense” of privacy. An example is with phone calls. Appropriate height panels are tall enough to hide your associates phones and computer screens from coworkers sitting across and beside them. And they are low enough so the caller can see who is walking around the area and adjust her conversation if she needs to.

Another key is to have a variety of spaces designed for a variety of tasks. For example quiet rooms where employees can go to make calls requiring privacy. Open plan work areas where teams can come together to work on projects. And cubicles, yes cubicles, where individuals can do solo work. You should also spread cafe and lounge seating throughout your office. This allows people to take a break from the cubicle and still get things done.

Another trend is growing in the modern workplace. It is where no one has an assigned workstation. They reserve the appropriate space they need for the task at hand. People are working from home sometimes, sales associates and management are out of the office, and people are always on vacation or sick. This means all the spaces are never used at one time anyway. Companies can get by with fewer seats than they have employees.

Companies just need good WiFi and wireless printers. Everyone can then work with a laptop, tablet, and mobile phone. Workstations need only have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Lockable, personal storage units (located in a central area) let people stash their electronics while they go out for lunch.

If you take these approaches, spontaneous interaction in public spaces can lead to increased understanding and productivity gains. And people can work collaboratively in appropriately designed team areas. Small quiet rooms and conference rooms can allow private conversations and the rare, necessary meeting to take place. The headphones can come off and discussions can begin.

The key is intelligent interior design and the appropriate office furniture. When done right your office design can lead to increased productivity and more profit for everyone.

Finally, while this has nothing to do with design also offer telecommuting. A flexible work schedule boosts your team’s productivity. And it is right for their families. It reduces stress and aids in employee retention.

Also, see Open Office vs. Cubicle: which station is right for you? and Open Office – friend or foe to your office.

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