A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 7, 2015

As Physical Walls Disappear in Offices, Do Psychological Walls Go Up?

Open plan, open mind? Or maybe not? JL

Naomi Shragai reports in the Financial Times:

Individuals need private space in which to think and to hold private conversations. The dismantling of walls and physical boundaries meant that individuals became responsible for how much they could intrude on each other’s working lives.Transparency took primacy over privacy.
One of the most striking changes in the world of work in recent decades has been the switch from small, often individual offices to large, open-plan layouts.The aim was to enhance innovation and productivity by creating collaborative places in which people interact more. Such a design was also cost efficient because it saved space and enabled managers to more easily spot potential problems among their teams.
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What was not considered, however, was the effect on individuals, who often need private space in which to think and to hold private conversations, both personal and professional.
The dismantling of walls and physical boundaries between people meant that individuals became responsible for setting their own limits on how much they could intrude on each other’s working lives, with little protocol to guide them.
Transparency took primacy over privacy, often resulting in constant interruptions and distractions. And over the past year there has been increasing use of sensors, particularly in the US, to monitor workers’ activity, productivity; even in some cases, conversations.
Has the pendulum from individual-office privacy to open-plan transparency swung too far?
Several factors have contributed, among them the pressure to collaborate. “When people are pushed to collaborate all the time you lose the benefit of individual thinking, which is often necessary for innovation,” Ms Redman says.The lack of space for personal and private conversations also plays a part. Employees lose control over who can see their computer screen, who can hear their conversations, and who can watch them eat cake when they’re on a diet,” she says. “We heard many stories of people being eavesdropped on by colleagues, and having their [work] calendars reviewed without permission.”
As a result, managing psychological boundaries has become a necessary skill at work. Such boundaries — limits we set on acceptable behaviour — operate in two directions, protecting us from being intruded on or harmed by others, and protecting others from our insensitive intrusions on them.
When boundaries are too rigid, people can become isolated and even withdrawn. Where they are inadequate, employees can feel exposed and vulnerable. Those with heightened sensitivity might wrongly interpret events around them and create unnecessary conflicts with colleagues.
Tips for surviving an open-plan officeWhat organisations can do:
Provide rooms for different tasks and needs: open plan for collaborative work, and sufficient spaces for private work and discussions
Set time limits on private room allocation to prevent individuals or groups monopolising the space
Allow staff flexibility to move from private to open spaces
Prof Bernstein suggests letting individuals air and test ideas in teams where they feel less exposed
What individuals can do:
Setting boundaries at work is as much about keeping other people’s needs in mind as it is your own
Tolerance for noise and stimulation varies — recognise that what is comfortable for you might be intolerable for colleagues
Try not to personalise or read things into other people’s conversations
Before a private phone conversation, think through the impression it might leave on colleagues
One example comes from a young solicitor who came to see me for psychotherapy. He suffers constant anxiety, and as a result puts a negative spin on the glances and comments from nearby colleagues, believing they are judging him badly. The mental pressure resulting from these thoughts makes the office an intolerable place for him.
A woman in finance, meanwhile, told me about feeling excluded and paranoid when colleagues in her open-plan office, who did not want to be overheard, whispered within view of her desk.
“This can make you feel either paranoid as you believe that they are talking about you, or excluded in that they are clearly having a conversation they do not want you to be part of.”
Certain personality types can be adversely affected by the constant presence of colleagues. In Quiet , a book about introverts, the writer Susan Cain explains how such people struggle in open-plan offices because they tend to have greater sensitivity to noise and distraction. While extroverts thrive in the stimulation and community of open plan, introverts become most creative and productive in solitude.
Ethan Bernstein, assistant professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at Harvard Business School, believes that open plan may produce less interaction and collaboration. He also questions the assumption that it produces more open discussion.
In one company that switched from a closed to open-plan office, he measured face-to-face interactions among staff. Interactions of individuals who did not work on teams together increased 47 per cent, while those between people who worked on the same team actually fell 45 per cent, he says.
The effect of being overly observed in open environments may leave people feeling so exposed and anxious that they do not risk doing anything out of the ordinary.
“The pressure to meet observers’ expectations restrains individuality and innovative thinking,” Prof Bernstein says, adding that being watched changes how people do their work. He says that managers often tell workers, “‘we want you to be different, to innovate, to experiment’. At the same time they are putting them in a situation that constrains that behaviour.”
For managers themselves, the constant interruptions can be tricky. A manager who works in the media says constant interruptions rob him of time to think. “You feel like the default position is that you’re available because you’re at your desk,” he says. “So saying ‘no, I cannot talk’ to people is harder.”
Conversations with family and friends can also be hard. As another manager put it to me: “You find out an awful lot about the private lives — the exam issues, the babysitting, the home insurance problems — of your colleagues sitting near you, and they rarely go up in your estimation as a result.”
Ms Redman believes that although open plan has its advantages, more balance between the option of working in private and working together is required in buildings.
Needs can also change at different stages of a task. People might require solitude when learning new skills, or in the early stages of a project, for example, while benefiting more from collaboration at later stages.
“The biggest outcome of our research is that there is no one solution,” she says. “It is contextual, it depends on one’s personality, the task at hand, and on one’s mood at any given date.”
The culture is changing, she says, as companies increasingly value flexibility in their office spaces. “We used to talk about the private office as a status symbol — now choice and control have become the new status symbol.”


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