Remote working and open plan offices = Productivity vs Collaboration?

June 20, 2017

What does your day look like?

Do you drive to work, head into your own or a shared office and get on with work? Do you have a desk in an open plan office, perhaps with hot desking? Or maybe you are on a laptop all day, moving between locations or sat at home keeping the cat off the keyboard? The nature of the workplace has shifted over the last twenty years with far more remote working and offices more likely to be open plan.

An open plan office - very open

But it seems that there is a backlash building against open plan offices with studies noting that there is a big dent to individuals productivity against the benefits of collaboration. It has even been noted that using headphones to concentrate does not completely help as the movement in people's peripheral vision still leads to distraction and loss of focus. Throw in a 2013 survey from Canada Life that found that people working from home had 70% fewer sick days than those in open offices and you have some serious considerations to make.

So why have open plan offices?

For the time being, I will gloss over the cost implications and think about the benefits to people of more open plan working. If you have a more open area, you encourage greater interaction and this helps foster better collaboration and also innovation. The CEO of Kellogs also noted that it allowed the culture of a company to spread more effectively and foster greater connection between management and other staff as well as between different teams. Others can overhear when you're having issues and help out. Your team near you have better ideas on what you are working on and if it is related, can quickly bring ideas together. We can all live in one big happy family, holding hands and making the world a better place as there is nothing better than forcing innovation…

Disgruntled workers

Apologies to non-British readers but I lapsed into too much British sarcasm here. Much of what I said is true but the reality also gets hampered by annoying habits of colleagues and people who have far more time for your job than theirs. The studies mentioned earlier found little evidence for the benefits of collaboration although the increased employee engagement through greater control offers many benefits. For work to actually get done, there are times that you need to be able to just get on with what has been assigned to you.

So that's some of the problems, what's solutions are there?

As with many things, the solution is to find a balance. Companies internal real estate teams are realising that different people need different solutions at different times. Where the Digital Workplace has offered plenty of solutions for collaboration (such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, SharePoint etc) and for staying focussed (https://medium.com/@producthunt/11-apps-to-help-you-find-your-focus-35dc52952af7), physical workspaces are evolving to become more flexible. This is not as easy with physical equipment but desks designed to not all be in rows and instead having areas where groups can be sat closer while other areas are more secluded. Smaller pods for private meetings or a bit of quiet focussed work. Electronic whiteboards or devices like the Surface Hub to collaborate
across locations and naturally in groups . Floor panels that allow power sockets to be more easily aligned to different desk layouts and increasing availability and security around wireless networks. All these are giving diversity to styles of office working that can adapt to a team's and organisation's needs over time.

Modern office example

Can I just work from home when I need to get things done?

Many people find that working from home, even if the office is not too far away, allows them to focus more and get things done without distraction. When you have a large report to write, this can be a good way to remove some more of the distractions inherent to the office. However, one of the pioneers of large scale remote working, IBM, has recently decided to bring their US remote workers back in to regional offices. The benefits to employees and reduced office costs have been offset by the increasing lack of collaboration between team members. While digital tools can help bring people together, they are still not the same as being there in place and working on joint projects. Executives are beginning to look at these benefits which are not as tangible but bring greater innovation

Can't the Digital Workplace solve all these issues?

I love the Digital Workplace potential. I love being able to find relevant documents straight away. I love being able to chat and get trips booked online wherever I am, even if it is with a bot and not a human. I love organising when everyone is available by entering a few dates and letting people vote for the best. I love being able to find useful knowledge in one easy to search place for my clients when someone is not available.

However, that doesn't mean that having the right tools mean that the right things will happen. Digital and physical workplaces are most effective when they are built around what staff in the organisation need to be most effective. It is important to communicate the potential but if your shiny new pods lay untouched and your Surface Hub shines on the wall with not one finger print on it while your paper flipboards are all used up, then that solution isn't for your organisation. If people are cramming round a small laptop touch screen on a regular basis while they share with a team in San Diego, then maybe it's time to get the sales guys from Microsoft in.

So...collaboration...productivity...which wins?

Does there have to be a loser? Keep employees engaged, give them options and make sure that they know how to use them. Clearly define expectations to people and ensure they have the right tasks to do and connections to the right people to do them with. There shouldn't be a loser then.

Everybody wins

June 20, 2017