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The open office and the Hawthorne effect

Private and public organizations appear to be embracing the open-office concept, intending to decrease costs and increase interaction among staff.

We can see the slow evolution from the closed office to the head-high cubicle walls to now the chest-high walls, all in the name of integration. We may get back to the day of no walls and simply desks arranged in neat rows and columns. Whenever they show this type of arrangement, it always seems somewhat Kafka-like: the bleak dystopian future that we are always trying to avoid but that seems to be coming for us anyway.

A new study from Service Research Centre at Karlstad University in Sweden suggests that the more co-workers share a workspace the less satisfied they are and the more difficult it is to have a good dialogue with other staff.

This may have depended on where the studied employees started, of course. Anyone with a private office suddenly cast into the open workplace community would be dissatisfied, it would appear. Anyone coming right out of school, with no previous experience working in a private office, could well be ecstatic just getting their own private desk instead of one of the communal desks.

Perhaps a staff-engagement and satisfaction-management technique would be to recall the Hawthorne studies conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In its factories outside of Chicago in the suburb of Hawthorne, Western Electric conducted various experiments regarding productivity. The Hawthorne experience placed the individual in a social context and suggested that performance is influenced not only by a person’s innate abilities but also by their surrounding environment and colleagues.

The experiment attempted to show how the surrounding environment increased productivity. In one factory, the overall lighting was improved, while another factory was kept as a control group. Productivity increased in the first group. As time went by, additional improvements were made to working hours and health breaks. Productivity increased again. Productivity continued to increase even when the lighting was returned to its original state.

The experimenters concluded that it was not so much the change in conditions that mattered but rather the fact that someone cared about the workplace environment and gave the workers an opportunity to discuss the changes beforehand.

Another open-office concept involves hoteling. In this situation, staff do not have their own individual space, walls or desk. You have to reserve a space if you intend to come to the office for meetings. It’s very much like Airbnb, but without the air travel.

Hoteling means that someone else is going to be poking through what used to be your personal desk. This thought drove me to go through every drawer and pick out the old pennies and other bits of debris that had accumulated for a decade or so. Pennies did not previously seem to be worth the effort, but now I have at least 30 days’ worth of luck.

The potential threat of including your own office to the hoteling schedule does have the added feature of making you finally go through those boxes of files and other assorted papers, magazines that you intend to read but have not got around to filing yet, piled, hidden and dusty. You know who you are. Mea culpa, for sure. At least going through all of these historical artifacts should bring back good memories. Either the memory was fun or it was a terrible situation, but at least it’s over and done with so you might as well smile with relief.

The company may go ahead and buy those generic picture frames with the attractive individuals or families already in them. This has the benefit of making it seem that no one owns the office and at least this has the further benefit of mystifying anyone that may use the office and tries to figure out who the people in the picture might be.

Hoteling, as being further removed from the open-office concept, requires a great deal of trust between management and staff. Management may feel that staff work better cloistered together and glowered over. However, this is rarely the case. Productivity should increase with the reduction of commuting and personal grooming time.

Management looking for productivity gains must realize that staff engagement requires an opportunity to have an impact on the workplace environment. Increasing overall engagement remains key in job satisfaction.