Updated: Oct 30, 2019
A new study from Harvard purports that the open-plan office arrangement is one of the dumbest fads in recent history. While a case can be made for the trust-building benefits of open-plan offices (vs closed offices and remote working), these fads will come and go and come again in the search for increasing productivity and innovation. But these fads mask the heart of the issue they are intended to deal with: employee engagement. By far and away, the best moderator of productivity is engagement. Research shows that a fully-engaged employee is more than twice as productive as a partially-engaged or disengaged employee. And lest you believe this doesn’t include innovation, think again. Innovation is a direct by-product of productivity. It is hard work and takes much effort. Researchers such as Dyer, Gregersen, Christensen, Flichy, and others have shown this to be true. Without highly-productive employees, there won’t be innovation.
Studies by Pew Research and Gallup have indicated that two-thirds of the American workforce report being only partially-engaged to fully disengaged in their work role. One of the four pillars of engagement is what psychologists call "absorbed". That is, a person is not distracted by other influences when they are fully-engaged in their jobs. The failure of the open-plan office highlights this, but it’s not the fault of the office arrangement - it's that people are not fully-engaged in their jobs, and therefore, any distraction at all gives them opportunity to not focus on their job. Senior managers believe that they give people compelling work with lofty causes or goals, but pay little attention to the four pillars of engagement. First is that leaders must know if and how people are really connected to these things. Second, they must make sure that they put people into key jobs who have a keen sense of curiosity and are open to new information and ideas. Third, people must have a sense of psychological and emotional safety in their jobs. This is very difficult in organizations that experience regular down-sizings. Like it or not, when people feel unsure about their future, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kick in, and the lofty goals of your company take second place.
While no company is perfect, many companies work hard to ensure there is every reason for employees to be engaged in their jobs. Some companies are better at one or more of these pillars than others, but if any one of these pillars is missing, engagement goes out the window. When this happens, the office plan only serves as the mechanism for people to be distracted. In open-plans, people become distracted by each other. In closed office plans, people are distracted by their personal agenda, and in remote or tele-working arrangements, people are distracted by whatever is going on in their home. Stick around long enough, and you'll see this tide come back in. But the company that gets "engagement" right won't have to worry about what the office plan looks like.
For more on how you can create a culture of engagement, contact Mike Felix at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on LinkedIn at Mike Felix, PhD.