Open-Space Office does not Trump Org. Culture

Posted on 6/10/2020

Open-Space Office does not Trump Org. Culture

            The open-space office is widely used and often touted as a means of fostering salutary outcomes in the workplaces, though it still continually provokes controversy.  Such architecture is juxtaposed to the traditional closed-wall office and the maligned cubicle with its rectangular confinement.  The open-space configuration is often linked to an effort to establish a cultural ethos of breaking down barriers to collaboration.  On the surface, the concept enjoys considerable appeal, but peeling the onion reveals serious pitfalls and raises questions about congruency with extant cultural norms in an organization.  Simply put, when things sound too good to be true, they are often untrue.  As the aphorism goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

            The contemporary architecture of offices includes an array of designs that vary on the continuum of enclosure.  At one end of the spectrum lies the traditional office with full ceiling closed walls; these offices are assigned to specific individuals for exclusive use.  At the other end is the purely open desk, without any surrounding walls, that is available on a first come-first serve basis.  In between rest the right-angled cubicle and the low-ceiling partition both of which are assigned to designated individuals.  The low-ceiling partition configuration is often referred to as a pod.

            In a 2010 survey of its organizational members, the International Facilities Management Association (IFMA) reported that 68 percent used open-space arrangements while 32 percent had traditional offices.  The commonplace usage of this design putatively offers several benefits.  First, it is intended to increase and improve communications among co-workers.  Second, it hopefully increases collaboration.  Third, the combination of improved communication and heightened collaboration should raise creativity.  Fourth, all of these benefits suggest increased productivity. Fifth, the design may connote a sense of egalitarianism, with the desks and pods being of equal size and similar configuration.  Last, the open-space office is more economical than the traditional office.  Parenthetically, proponents of this design often point to its presumed appeal to millennials, who prefer the comradeship that might result from the absence of physical barriers.

            Some empirical studies and loads of anecdotes, however, suggest that the downsides of the open-space design may offset presumed benefits.  For instance, Kim and de Dear (“Workspace Satisfaction: The Privacy-Communication Tradeoff in Open-Plan Offices,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2013) found, based on a survey conducted by the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, “results that categorically contradict industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communications between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction.”  They found dissatisfaction with the lack of privacy and noise.  Other criticisms of open-space office arrangements center on the spread of germs and resulting illness, which increases the use of sick days, and a sense of being watched by management (Little Brother).  Further, because boomers are reportedly less enthusiastic about open-space offices, they may resent the imposition of this architecture if motivated by a desire to placate millennials.  Inter-generational conflict may ensue, which could discourage communication and collaboration. 

            Whatever the potential net benefits of the open-space concept may be, their attainment will be hindered if the goals behind the architecture fail to comport with cultural norms.  Undoubtedly, this spatial configuration could prove useful to facilitating organizational change if reinforced with a prevailing or emergent set of norms.  In this regard, the relevant norms derive from an Orwellian set of dimensions.  These dimensions include the extent to which prevailing practices balance coaching against controlling, open versus closed communication, rewards against punishment, and flexibility versus rigidity.  For example, if an organization’s prevailing culture is distinguished by the controlling and monitoring of employee activities, then the simple adoption of an open-space architecture is less likely to result in more genuine openness and collaboration.

            In this connection, it is interesting to observe that the aforementioned IFMA survey found that open-space arrangements are by no means distributed equally across the organizational hierarchy.  Ninety-eight percent of the executive suite offices, according to this survey, were traditional, closed-wall configurations, while 89 percent of senior management’s was likewise traditional.  The lower on the organizational ladder, so to speak, the more likely the open-space office.  This patently non-egalitarian distribution in and of itself is problematic, and it raises obvious questions about the genuineness of the salutary motives behind such architecture.

            My inductively derived hypothesis is that office-space architecture will be trumped by a countermanding culture and, therefore, its forced imposition will prove unsuccessful in attaining the often proclaimed benefits.  Such architecture will not supersede the contradictory forces of Orwellian management, with its emphasis on authoritarianism, control, suspicion, distrust, and closemindedness. Therefore, if an organization genuinely seeks to attain the arguable benefits of open-space, then it must align its physical structure with cultural norms and relevant practices.  Furthermore, it must convey a genuineness that transcends mere cost-efficiency as a driving force and that rejects having a double-standard practice that reserves traditional office structures for higher-ups while shuttling the lesser ranks into open pits. 


*Marick F. Masters is a professor of business and Director of Labor@Wayne at Wayne State University.  He is also a senior partner with AIM {Albright, Irr, and Masters) Consultants, a management consulting firm.


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