Yesterday I wrote about the overuse of “collaboration” and the growing trend toward open work spaces in the corporate environment. One company that is embracing the shared work environment in a substantial way is Principal Financial. The $284 million renovation of their Des Moines building will eliminate offices in favor of “coves” to provide open and mobile work spaces for employees.

As someone who is fascinated with organizational cultures, I wish I had a crystal ball to see what will happen at Principal and others who embrace this no-office design. I would expect that there will be greater small group gatherings, more informal discussions and more frequent cross-pollination than would occur with walls. Perhaps great new insights will result when people are able to easily work with others who have different roles and perspectives.

And I wonder — at what cost. The lack of ownership of a personal space — even the three sides of a cubicle, I suspect will diminish the feeling of attachment some employees have with their employer. A transient work space makes people feel, well, more transient, and I would predict not as connected to the organization. The inability to display any personal artifacts reduces the visual cues of shared experiences colleagues may have with each other. (For example, someone who did not know me could instantly tell I was a dog lover by walking into my cube; now they would need to explicitly ask since space is no longer designated for a single person.)

I also am curious about the impact of open and fluid work environments for the introverts in the bunch. Some people need a bit of privacy, stability and structure, and I wonder if their effectiveness will diminish with the modern floor plans. Principal says that employees no longer will be “tethered” to their desks, but that tether can be a cord of security for some temperaments.

We have gone from the open group of typists, to offices, to cubicles and now to “collaborative” design. I suspect that the open floor plans are the fad of the day (or decade), and, like with everything else, will evolve again and reformulate into something new in the next round of renovations. In the meantime, organizations who deploy them and employees who work within them need to be intentional about fostering connections amongst colleagues and engendering connections to the company. 

Removing walls does not automatically remove all the barriers to communication or collaboration. It will take more than a renovation to create a culture where employees of all types feel at home.

— beth triplett

Open space office at the Foundling child welfare nonprofit in New York City. No walls, so they added these small rooms for privacy. Tripled their capacity for employees in the same space, even CEO has no walls in office. (from Amy Franck Meyer)

1 comment

  1. In touring architecture firms, I have noticed this as well. They all have open floor plans with few offices and/or doors. This has been pointed out to me with pride usually followed by the fact that the employees asked for this layout as it encourages collaboration and communication.

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