Is Remote Work Making Open Plan Office a Relic?
Open-plan offices replaced the soulless cubicles of Asia Pacific. Now the no-wall workplace is having its bubble-burst moment
It started with the tearing down of the dividing walls and removal of the soulless cubicles. Long tables came marching in, making everyone, from junior to senior, sit shoulder to shoulder, on creaking ergonomic chairs. More collaboration will happen. More ideas will sprout. Productivity will skyrocket. Outsiders will applaud the energy bursting in the office.
That’s how the idea of open-plan offices was sold to the world decades ago. According to a 2010 study by the US-based International Facility Management Association, almost 70 percent people worked in an office with either no walls or low walls. Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and other giants and startups made the layout, adorned with succulents, the epitome of a productive office. The $20 billion unicorn WeWork flourished on the principle that if people are in a shared space, they will network more.
Only that they don’t, at least what’s what research suggests.
Let it be known
Employees don’t like open-plan offices. While sitting in a corner of the open space, one can hear the sound of heavy fingers tapping away at a keyboard at the other corner, or know who is having a tough time convincing a client. In other words, there’s seldom any privacy, and often plenty of noise. “I try to tune people out by putting on noise-cancelling earphones. All that chatter interrupts my flow of thoughts. It's uninspiring. It kills epiphanies,” says Nicole Wee, a writer who works for a startup in Malaysia.
They are not good for collaboration either, the very reason they are promoted for. A July study last year by Harvard University’s business school, which was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B journal, found that open offices reduce face-to-face interaction by 70 percent and increase email and messaging by almost 50 percent. Open offices, the study researchers wrote, tend to be “overstimulating". Too many people mean too much information, too many distractions, too many people walking around—all of which “appears to have the perverse outcome of reducing rather than increasing productive interaction."
Peace comes at a cost
Another study by Harvard University’s public health school, published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal, says even architects who design such offices personally hate them. They believe open spaces lower work engagement and job satisfaction, increase difficulty with concentration, and the total effect on professional relationships (that is, internal ties) is negative.
Research has also shown that people in open offices take almost two-thirds more sick leave and report greater unhappiness, more stress, and less productivity than those with more privacy.
Yet, the open plan continues to flourish across the world, especially in Asia, where startups, expanding at home and beyond, believe such a layout is the best (and cheap) bet. The Asia Pacific Occupier Survey 2018, a CBRE research which polled corporate real estate executives from multinationals and large Asian corporates from October to December 2017, found that 45 percent of respondents plan to increase their corporate real estate portfolios in Asia Pacific in the next two years, with China, India and Singapore being the top three choices (in that order). Over 30 per cent of the occupiers plan to increase their use of co-working space because they believe there’s a greater need to promote innovation and creativity in the workplace.
What they don’t realize is that any savings a company makes from the office construction (or lack of it) gets stunted by the business costs it has to suffer because of unproductive and unsatisfied employees.
Time to move on?
Amanda Stanaway, principal of global architecture firm Woods Bagot, says open plan offices have been in existence and prevalent in all of her 20-year working career.
“Our clients in almost all sectors are mostly open plan... . About 60 per cent of our Australian clientele and about 40 per cent of our clients in South East Asia, are agile, free address or ABW (activity-based working), with most of these being driven by global workplace standards,” she informs. But now, the Australia-based expert adds, companies are slowly realising that open-plan offices require a balance of enclosed (quiet space for concentration) and open, connected space for collaboration and work. They are moving on to a more evolved open plan, which includes ABW and/or agile working—“all which work on leveraging space but also providing users choice and a diversity of space.”
Organizations are looking to create workplaces that are both social and organizational, prioritizing spaces that allow for multiple ways of working, she explains.
“The evolution towards more agile workplaces means that a big driver for modern workplace design is the facilitation of collaboration across teams, locations and even countries. Clients also prioritize ease of communication between workers and integration with technology – asking designers to find ways to prompt workers to engage with spaces intuitively as well as providing multiple settings for teamwork.
“There is also increased awareness of health and wellbeing and the advantages of embedding movement into an office workers day but also ensuring ‘comfort’ for all workers both physical and psychological. The average worker can spend around six hours of their day sitting; so employers are faced with the challenge of counter-balancing the unhealthy impacts of sedentary work,” she adds.
Wiktor Schmidt, the chief executive of Netguru, one of the world’s leading software development companies that has a strong presence in Asia-Pacific, believes that office layout should not necessarily play a role in the life of an employer and employee, for productivity is closely “correlated to the culture, processes, and systems in place inside a company. Effective and empathetic leadership combined with systems in place for efficient communication across teams can have more of an impact on productivity than a physical layout of an office.”
Netguru moved beyond the traditional office model years ago, and embraced a “highly successful (strategy), with a global, remotely distributed workforce,” informs Schmidt. Their remote team works with over 200 clients in more than 30 countries.
Michael Risse, vice president and chief marketing officer of the leading US-based software company Seeq, where a virtual work policy has been part of the company’s business plan from the beginning, was once a critic of remote work. “But when a work environment is all virtual, it’s a lot easier to keep everything organized and on-schedule than in the located office environment – where on frequent occasions some people will be in the office, while others aren’t. Workspace technology has also made logarithmic leaps from where it was 10 years ago – just compare a traditional phone call to a Zoom conference meeting,” he confesses, adding, “A remote work environment enables employers to recruit and employ team members from anywhere, and gives those employees the flexibility to work from where they already are.”
No such thing as perfect
Remote work environment too comes with its set of challenges. For instance, how do you ensure employees are being productive? Trust is the main factor, says Schmidt. “You need to be transparent, open, and there should be constant to ensure that such a setup works. Having a strong, values-focused foundation can positively impact all aspects of a business, even relationships with external clients. If anything, we try to over-communicate, both internally and externally. We do this by constantly updating each other and making use of the latest communication technologies such as Slack and Jira.”
Control is rarely 100 per cent in the company’s hands, adds Risse. “It’s never been easier to track employee activity and progress: developers write code, salespeople generate revenue, marketing creates PR & MQL and website visits, and executives spend money… all of these are numbers that can be tracked in any number of online tools (Salesforce account touches, Trello board actions, GitHub check-ins, web metrics budget tracking). Another thing is with developer-model daily stand-ups and sprints (two or three-week bursts) that means deliverables are due sooner and performance is easier to track,” he explains.
Keeping an eye on a staff’s performance is a complete no-no, Schmidt points out. The best tactic, he suggests, is having your management team lead by example and setting clear expectations of how you should work and communicate as a remote employee. “Draft employee handbooks and over-communicate processes explicitly across your teams. Hire mature, self-starting employees, and support them to do the best work of their careers. We’ve found that if you celebrate your employees, and trust them in their remote work, they will do an excellent job in return,” Schmidt suggests.
So is there a formula for an ideal office space?
“If given the right tools and entrenched in the right environment, people will find ways to collaborate and be successful whether they are in an office, or working remotely,” says Schmidt.
Stanaway believes there is an ideal office "design" for an organization, but that "idealness" is relegated to a point in time. "We must accept that organizational structures, technology, people and teams constantly change. The old paradigm of an office that is designed and remains fixed has become outdated as the dynamics of modern business and the way we interact and exchange information and ‘change’ become part of day to day working life. A dynamic business requires a dynamic work workplace,” she says.
A stickler for details, Pooja Singh likes telling people stories. She has previously worked with Mint-Hindustan Times, Down To Earth and Asian News International-Reuters.