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Open Office Designs May Lead to Territorial Behaviour

General Comments September 20th 2011

Companies nowadays are always trying to find ways to further improve their productivity within their staff. This has paved way for offices to become open plan as a way of achieving this as well as saving space. This may seem like killing two birds with one stone, but research suggests that this can actually lead to subversive practices as employees attempt to mark out their territory.

Steve Cummings and Professor Torkild Thanem (both at Stockholm University) lead the survey and were surprised at the findings. "The intent of taking away dividing walls and doors is usually to improve creativity and performance by fostering spontaneous fun, interaction and sharing," says Professor Cummings.

"However, we found evidence that it can lead to attempts by employees to re-create spatial and social structures and boundaries, actually undermining the behaviours an organisation is trying to encourage."

One company that was included in the survey was a business that had recently changed the office design from small individual offices, where the office desks were separated by tall freestanding office screens to an open plan office with bench system desks and hot desks. The idea was to create an environment where everyone can see each other to further improve the communication, creativity and morale in the office. However after being interviewed where some of the staff felt that this was being achieved, others began to monitor the arrival and departure times of their fellow colleagues and even to go as far as commenting on their breaks. An interesting effect from this is that the amount of employees having sick days dropped. This could be due a happier workplace due to the changes, but more likely is that other employees are more aware of their movements.

Not only this but as interaction with fellow colleagues are encouraged and leaving their office chairs was more acceptable, a lot of people were finding that loud discussions were causing disturbances and distractions. Lack of privacy was also an issue with some employees were made to adopt a more defensive identity at work.

Hot desking was encouraged in a lot of these companies, however employees tended to place posters and pictures around as well as rearranging furniture to add their own personality to the workspace which discouraged people from using it.

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