May 9

Is your office an open plan disaster?

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Is your office an open plan disaster?

The vast majority of new build offices are large open plan edifices, designed to encourage co-operation and collaboration. Removing the office ‘walls’ is seen to enable greater collaboration, open dialogue and hot housing of ideas that will ultimately make organisations more innovative and effective. Is this true?

Open plan – a study

In 2018, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, at Harvard Business School and Harvard University, respectively published a study “The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration”. The paper highlighted how they had recruited a number of people for a study at the global headquarters of a Fortune 500 multinational company that was about to undergo a redesign of an entire floor. The company planned to remove individual cubicles to create a fully open-plan workspace.

Bernstein shared his motivation to do the study with the Harvard Business School Review, saying:

There’s a lot of interest in open offices because so many of us work in them, and we have very strong opinions about them.

The participants, undertook a wide range of roles across various functions across the company and were required to wear a “sociometric badge” and microphone for three weeks prior to the redesign. Then a few months after their offices were re-modelled, they wore the badge and microphone again for a further three weeks.

The “sociometric badges” were bluetooth-enabled electronic devices with microphones, that allowed the researchers to monitor the frequency of the wearers’ face-to-face interactions. The company also allowed the researchers to look for any changes in use of email and other communication related applications such as instant messenger.

What did they find?

The results were described as stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

So, a change meant to facilitate openness and greater collaboration actually encouraged people to retreat into themselves and create another opportunity for email to become a productivity destroyer.

Lets not kid ourselves, often the move to open plan offices is more about cost than productivity, hence there is probably very little we can do anything the offices that we work in. However, we can make better choices when it comes to email. One of the biggest issues that my clients report is the volume of email that they have to deal with on a daily basis.

What can you do about email overwhelm?

Here are a few ideas, noting that if your job is to deal with customers via email, this is something that you cannot ‘turn off’:

  • Email etiquette – Create your own – tell people you genuinely appreciate their efforts, but you don’t routinely send ‘thank you’ emails – as it wastes their time, clogs up infrastructure and detracts you from other higher value activity. Think about it – sending a simple thank you, even though it takes seconds to do, takes seconds to read and delete. Multiply that by the large volume of interactions that you have and you can simply see the sand running through the hour glass on activity that isn’t adding any value. I am not saying that expressing thanks is not important – simply that leadership via email is never a successful strategy and the niceties of face to face contact don’t translate well to the impersonal mechanisms of email. Yes you can send the occasional (relevant and personal) thank you email for the job well done, the extra mile covered (where immediacy is important), but the never forget the human aspects! Just make sure people know the absence of a response is not personal and they shouldn’t read anything in to it.

  • If you don’t understand what an email is asking you to do – don’t answer it.

  • Limit email replies to one a minute (forces you to be more considered about the email conversations you engage in).
  • Email is not life – you don’t have to be available 24×7. Tell people that if you are not listed in the ‘To’ part of an email, you may not respond to it (some people us email rules to do this, using an ‘Out of Office’ reply that suggests you write ‘To’ them with a specific request on email when they are CC’d noting that unless you do this you won’t get a response). Sounds horrible, however it does force other people to be much more specific in the requests they make of you and even lead to emails with fewer people on the distribution.
  • Speak to a human being – When you have an email chain that is longer than 4 or 5 messages, get on the phone or speak to people face to face. Whatever you do, don’t have a meeting (these are further time bandits! I will talk about these in a future post). How many times have we found the coffee machine conversation much more productive than the 100’s of emails we get in a week? So why do we persist with the impersonal communications routes? After all, that is one of the reasons why we have ostensibly moved to open plan offices – so that people are more accessible.
  • The physical post generally arrives once a day – and it gets dealt with when it gets dealt with. So, why do we have to be immediately available for email? Shut down your email client and turn off email notifications especially when you want to get really productive or focus.

I couldn’t possibly do that?


You may or may not agree with these suggestions. Either way, ask yourself, “If I do this, what is the worst that can happen?”. Email is rarely that urgent and people can always call you. Perhaps you become known as that person who is difficult to get hold of on email? You will still have to deal with the volume of email, but you will control it, rather than it controlling you. Is that such a bad thing? People will eventually get used to it and you may just find that they will start to emulate you…. Then everyone wins. There are other benefits – the boss that has to come and find you with something urgent, may get a different perspective of the workplace that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Imagine that!

Also, consider the upside – being more productive on the right things increases feelings of self-worth an happiness and may just lead to career advancement.

If you are having challenges focusing on the ‘right’ things in life, why not give us a call?

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