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Open offices: Work well with some ‘I’ spaces thrown in, say agencies

Free flow of communication. Cost effective. Team building. Collaboration. Culture collision. A book of perks of working in a workplace imbibing an open office floorplan consists of all these words. It facilitates smoother interaction capabilities, great for brainstorming and for creating a good team work. With less maintenance efforts, open floorplan comes with saving much of a space and can accommodate more number of employees, being cost-effective. Bonding of culture and collaboration takes an all new avatar as secret tasks take a backseat, breaks the hierarchy and transparency flows in. Almost 80 per cent of American offices are employing some versions of the open-office plan and India follows suit.

But what if someone’s privacy gets hindered? What if the productivity gets hampered in case of continuous vigilance in an open office space? A recent study from Oxford Economics and Plantronics conveys that the noise level that makes you go haywire and disrupts the concentration level, leads to decrease in creative thinking and putting in large efforts. A report published in The New Yorker mentions that open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In 2011, organisational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.

As more and more agencies, especially start-ups, are rooting for the no-wall barrier workplace trend, Adgully seeks to find out from ad agencies that have adopted an open office space culture how it impacts employee motivation and productivity, the advantages and some challenges in working in such an office culture and more. 

Varun Duggirala, Co-Founder, The Glitch 

What were the factors that made your agency opt for an open space office culture?
It honestly never was a focused choice that we made, it was a natural instinct to have a space that was open and was conducive to collaboration and propagated the right kind of vibe. 

How long has it been since your agency commenced the open space office operations? Have the initial expectations been met?
We’ve always been an open office and that openness is what has always stayed as a core part of how we do things and how we interact and grow together as a company. 

What has the cost to company factor been in adopting an open space office culture?
I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t a factor that has worked well for us, but it is more a by-product of having an open office, that’s not the reason why we chose to be in an open environment. 

In what ways has this culture impacted employee productivity and morale?
It is important to balance an open work space with enough enclosed meeting rooms and spaces where focused and distraction free work can happen. So, there is a science that we have maintained to look at each team and the kind of work they do and what it requires and designed their space accordingly and always kept enough enclosed meeting rooms in close proximity. 

Have you also encountered some cons of the open space office culture?
The noise levels have been a con to be honest, but that's why as we've evolved we've moved to a combination of open and partially closed spaces. The balance is paramount. 

How do you tackle the needs of the employees who require more privacy to work better? What about noise distraction?
Headphones! They are always on requirement for focused singular work. But on a serious note, ample meeting rooms and corners where people can go work or take a call or just chill out, have over time been built into our workspace, planned at subverting any productivity issues that may crop up. 

Saurabh Varma, CEO, Leo Burnett, South Asia 

What were the factors that made your agency opt for an open space office culture?
We believe that ideas are best created in an atmosphere where there are no hierarchies. Everyone can come up with an idea and the role of the leaders is to make sure these beautiful ideas can be curated. An open office ensures that these ideas reach the right people, quickly. 

How long has it been since your agency commenced the open space office operations? Have the initial expectations been met?
We have always had an open office. Off late our office, apart from being open, has embraced the spirit of socialisation. We believe ideas become better when they are bounced around in a team. The 'social office' has led to some really incredible ideas being born. It has helped us create a unique culture. For us that is the most critical piece -- culture. Like they say, 'culture eats strategy for breakfast'. 

What has the cost to company factor been in adopting an open space office culture?
An open office has no cost implications. 

In what ways has this culture impacted employee productivity and morale?
The productivity increases and so does the morale of the creators. The path to an idea being created and presented is now a step away. Everybody can be a maker. An open office ensures that nobody can hide. It creates pressure on everybody to perform. It creates transparency. 

Have you also encountered some cons of the open space office culture?
You have to ensure that there are spaces for one to escape. We believe in radical collaboration and radical non-collaboration. We need spaces where you can escape to reflect and create by yourself as much as spaces where you can create with teams. Both aspects are critical. 

How do you tackle the needs of the employees who require more privacy to work better? What about noise distraction?
We have several spaces for employees to disconnect and work by themselves, if that is needed. 

Uttio Majumdar, Head of Operations, Mumbai, Rediffusion Y&R

What were the factors that made your agency opt for an open space office culture?
We believe a closed environment is as bad as a closed mind, if not worse. An open space culture fosters open thinking and better teamwork and collaboration. It also encourages positive energy and definitely brings in overall transparency. 

How long has it been since your agency commenced the open space office operations? Have the initial expectations been met?
We have changed our office a couple of times since its inception and we’ve always tried an open approach. Now with our new office, the open environment is absolutely great and there’s an infectious buzz and excitement that tells us that we have moved in the right direction. 

What has the cost to company factor been in adopting an open space office culture?
An open office certainly reduces cost since one can arrange more staff in an open layout. Even maintenance is easier. 

In what ways has this culture impacted employee productivity and morale?
The whole environment in an open office is more conducive to participation and discussions. There are no walls that barricade people or thoughts. You can actually see a sense of fellowship and above all the excitement is infectious. 

Have you also encountered some cons of the open space office culture?
Yes! It gets noisy sometimes. And sometimes you have to adjust in terms of the air conditioning and other facilities where individual preferences have to give way to the choice of the ‘majority’. But this too, I believe, is a life skill – it teaches us how to operate in a group where every decision or action might not be in line with your own thinking. 

How do you tackle the needs of the employees who require more privacy to work better? What about noise distraction?
We have a lot of open area and meeting rooms where one can attend to important calls. We also have a large conference room for those important meetings. 

Praveen Rawal, Managing Director, Steelcase India 

In what ways has open office culture impacted employee productivity and morale?
In organiwations all over the world, people are facing brand-new problems that require sharing information and putting knowledge together in new ways. For all the right reasons, collaboration has become the big engine for progress and innovation. However, office design plays an important role to instil collaboration at the workplace. The workplace should be designed in a way that it facilitates easy interaction amidst co-workers, at the same time create a room for privacy as well. Workplace should support the physical, cognitive and emotional needs of people, and give them choice and control over where and how they work. 

To heighten collaboration, many companies are placing emphasis on open spaces and not enough on enclosed, private spaces. Open workplace is trending as it encourages collaboration and help workers to feel supported in their work, building trust and loyalty within them. It helps workers to create a sense of individual influence and control over their environment, versus feeling quashed by standardization and rigidity. Open space allows personalisation and individual customisation, instead of tightly enforced workplace standards which helps employees to work without stress and increase productivity. Conversely, privacy also remains important in the workplace for confidential discussions, quiet calls etc. it also provides an employee a quick break to focus and recharge themselves from the hectic busy shchedule. This will encourage agile decision making and creativity. According to Steelcase Global Workplace study, in India individual and shared private offices are more common than open plan workspaces or nomadic work. 

Testimonial: 

DTH service provider Tata Sky, a joint venture between the Indian conglomerate Tata and Fox’s Sky Television, created a space for its 190 headquarters employees that featured designated areas for game playing and socialising. Its unusual circular floor plan gave a feeling of openness, with the company’s branding prominently displayed. The effect was a vibrant space designed to encourage creativity and spontaneous interactions, while instilling a strong sense of company pride. 

Have you also encountered some cons of the open space office culture? How do you tackle the needs of the employees who require more privacy to work better? What about noise distraction?

While open office culture is associated with several advantages and benefits, it has its own drawbacks concomitant with it. Due to open office culture, throughout the world, too much interaction and not enough privacy has reached crisis proportions, taking a heavy toll on workers’ creativity, productivity, engagement and wellbeing. More than ever before, workers are going public with complaints about their lack of privacy at work due to open office culture. Steelcase Privacy Crisis report conducted on 14 countries reveals the fact that 98 per cent of Indian employees name privacy as the main factor hampering their productivity. Hence, the need for privacy at work is as basic to human nature as is the need to be with others. The harder people work collaboratively, the more important it is to also have time alone – to be free from distractions, apply expertise and develop a solid point of view about the challenges at hand.

Also, the open office culture creates a room for distraction and noisy work environment. Accroding to Steelcase, in some open-plan offices, noise ranges from 60 to 65 decibels. The noise level of 60-65 decibels that’s common in some open-plan offices is not only too loud for concentration, it can also impede effective collaboration by causing speech interference. Hence, work environments should notbe designed just for appearance, but also for experience in all the senses, especially hearing. 

Privacy is a vital factor which affects employee’s creativity. Hence, to boost productivity in the open office model, a mix of open and enclosed areas, “I” spaces and “We” spaces is suggested. Instead of providing only open-plan work settings, organisations should “create settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions.

Office should be an ecosystem that offers a range, or palette, of places – destinations that augment people’s interactions with each other and provide access to the tools and technology that people can only find at work. These destinations need to balance spaces for group work with individual spaces for focus and reflection. Organised in interrelated zones and settings, these destinations support diverse modes of work and diverse ways of thinking – both of which are essential to fuel the creative process that leads to innovation.

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