OPINION

Casting doubt on the biggest and boldest workplace fad of this century

Anyone who has worked in an office over the past few decades would have witnessed the rise and fall of any number of wicked workplace fads, which have been seized upon by stressed and troubled bosses trying to find a cheap and quick fix to often intractable problems.

You may remember dabbling in a spot of process engineering, participating in quality circles, being part of the learning organisation movement, or even engaging in 'best practice'.

New research has cast significant doubt on the merits of open-plan offices. Illustration: Karl Hilzinger

New research has cast significant doubt on the merits of open-plan offices. Illustration: Karl Hilzinger

The fact is that fad-surfing bosses have often left workers marinating in misery as they struggle to keep up with their managers' extraordinary flights of fanciful thinking.

Of all the workplace fads that inspire grumbling, none has spawned more acrimony than the open-plan office design - or should that be the open-plan office debacle. Think of those amazing architectural gifts with large, airy, open-floor plans where workers sit across from one another sharing their views on the latest Netflix series and commenting on their colleagues' lunch.

Not only was the open-plan work place credited with reducing real estate costs, it was also said to have stimulated interaction among workers to promote more collaboration, job satisfaction, productivity and support.

But open-plan office insiders - and almost 60 per cent of the Australian workforce is operating in an open-plan office - have pointed out new research out of Harvard Business School that has cast significant doubt on the merits of what is arguably the biggest and boldest workplace fad of this century.

The Harvard research concluded that switching to an open-plan office arrangement actually resulted in substantially less face-to-face interaction yet increased the use of email communication and instant messaging - the exact opposite of what open-plan designs were meant to inspire.

In many ways the Harvard research merely highlighted what has been an open secret in many open-plan workplaces for years.

But for fear of getting the boss offside or being labelled a poor team player, many workers were reluctant to call out the limitations of workplace set-ups that insiders claim are much more disruptive than the Harvard research suggests.

For a start, the insiders will say, open-plan designs sabotage a worker's ability to focus. Chattering, ringing, pinging, sneezing and laughing all result in sensory overload that wards off any semblance of productivity, reduces overall quality and often leaves a worker highly agitated.

The lack of a physical barrier also makes it impossible to protect yourself from a toxic, difficult or harassing colleague.

Others will liken open-plan offices to being on a nudist beach - there is no place for privacy. Working in an open-plan office, for example, can generate angst at the thought your boss and colleagues can tally the number of times and duration of your bathroom visits, awkwardness that all and sundry can monitor your social media and internet browsing habits, and annoyance that anyone can listen in on your phone calls.

And how distracting is it when you are trying to write a sensitive performance review while wedged between one colleague who is making an appointment with an urologist and another who is picking the anchovies out of a tuna salad.

The lack of a physical barrier also makes it impossible to protect yourself from a toxic, difficult or harassing colleague - and during cold and flu season colleagues fall like dominoes.

However, unlike other office fads killing off the open-plan design is not an option, not least because the cost of running an open-plan office is about one-third that of a conventional closed-off workplace comprising individual offices.

But it is possible to put in place measures to make the open-plan workplace more effective, productive and enjoyable for the workforce.

At the very minimum those measures ought to include the creation of more private working areas.

And perhaps bosses should consider piggybacking on another rapidly growing trend by allowing workers to beat the distraction of the open-plan office by working from home on a more regular basis.

  • Professor Gary Martin is Chief Executive Officer, the Australian Institute of Management WA.