Saturday, March 14, 2009

“Pods or Pits”? Office Design for Teamwork, Productivity, and Open Communication

I work in an office that has three basic working spaces: Single offices for senior managers; shared offices for junior managers; individual “pods”, or cubicles, and open space “pits”, where teams are clustered together with no walls.

An office furniture company offered to write a guest post for Great Leadership on how to use office design to foster better teamwork, productivity, and more open communication. I asked the writer, John Flanagan, from CSN Chairs, to frame the post as a debate on the pros and cons of open space office design. He did a nice job with the article below, although he admits he’s biased towards open space.

I’ve never worked in an “open pit”, so I have my own biases. Check out John’s post, as well as the Asia One article and this BNET article I’ve included to add balance to the debate. After reading all three articles, please weigh in with your comments on the debate.

The Debate:
For many, working in a pod office setup is a reminder of the monotony of their jobs, and sometimes bears a slight resemblance to a cage or a claustrophobic prison. Others like the separation of closed environments, and their ability to focus more easily without getting distracted by their surroundings. The debate is carrying over into the 21st Century, and as the workforce, as well as the nature of employment evolves, so do our offices. Whether it is a large desk that we share with others or a small, cluttered pod, an office setup can significantly contribute to the overall morale and productivity of a company. So what works and what doesn’t?

Keeping it clean
Cleanliness is extremely important in your employee performance as well as your portrayal to the rest of the company. Cleanliness is usually equated with organization which then translates into increased productivity. Your pod setting is a tempting scene for the crime of clutter, and chaos. In all likelihood, your pod is your own space and for the most part, you are the only one that will see it. For those that are even slightly careless, clutter is almost inevitable in an unregulated area such as a pod. Throwing your coat over that stack of important papers or forgetting to label that report can seriously restrict your productivity throughout the course of the day. Next thing you know, your carelessness is affecting your job performance because you keep forgetting to include the cover sheet on that ever-important TPS Report. On the other hand, open office settings forcefully encourage office space cleanliness and organization. When your boss is sitting right next to you, with no physical barrier in the way, you will want your desk to display and represent your employment as an asset to the company, not as an unruly symbol of individual negligence.

Breaking down the Partition
As I am writing this, I am sitting in an office that is one big row of desks, no physical barriers, no pods, and no apparent hierarchy whatsoever. I can see all my co-workers clearly and asking a question is something that is strongly encouraged of me. The setup is simple- desk, office chair, phone, and computer. Everyone has the same setup as the rest of the employees, and sit in the same general area regardless of rank or seniority. This type of office setup not only lends itself to greater teamwork, but it also boosts morale and productivity. On the other hand, pods do not necessarily make employees more productive; more secluded maybe but not more productive. Those that are fortunate enough to have fun at work, and genuinely enjoy their interactions, will be just as productive if not more so than those in a closed environment.

An Inclusive atmosphere is very beneficial to the overall goals of a company and generates synergy throughout the office. For the introvert and extrovert alike, open offices force teamwork, creativity, open dialogue, and feedback. For the introvert, this is more of a challenge but the end result is rewarding from a social as well as professional standpoint. Furthermore, brilliant ideas are manifested from discussion, discourse, debate, and brainstorming. An Open office setup creates the atmosphere for this kind of teamwork that is crucial for the success of any business.

Where are we heading?
In a recent article of Asia One Magazine, the traditional office is described as an “actual 'slave gallery’ where… “The individual is denuded of their individuality and put into a cubed mould to facilitate productivity. While this statement might be a slight hyperbole, clearly open office setups are more effective in the long run. Not only do these setups encourage office collaboration, but they also can create social connections that build happy relationships. As we know, a happier office is a more productive one.

The future of working America is based on spirited competition, and a new frontier of competitive markets. Now, more than ever, it is increasingly important to create an atmosphere that is conducive to spreading big ideas, while streamlining efficiency. This all starts with the general layout of a company’s office, and can make or break its future prosperity.

1 comment:

Jeff Rogers said...

Hi Dan,
I couldn't agree more with you regarding the importance of a good environment. It speaks right to the culture of a company and when the environment is in conflict with the goals it produces confusion and apathy. A culture that fosters teamwork naturally, in a fun way, is always going to have better employee retention and some studies argue a more profitable business.
The environment also plays into engagement and happiness issues for employees and co-workers. There are some great studies being done around the importance of alignment, happiness, and productivity at Harvard.
If you are interested, I wrote a fun book on fostering teamwork called Office Sportz I love to get your input on. I think it aligns very neatly with your vision of team building. Check it out at www.officesportz.com and if you'd like, I will send you a copy.
BTW: The slave galley reference made me think of those classic sword and sandal movies from the fifties only with office workers at their cubicles. What would Sparticus have done?
Thanks,
Jeff Rogers
jeff@officesportz.com