In our last post in our series summarizing Michael Brill's short booklet The Office as a Tool he spoke about how their research found that there were limited numbers of activities that went on at work, and they could be accommodated by even fewer workstation types. Similarly there are a limited number of different types of work groups.
Next he went on to describe several surprises that they found in their research. These are very enlightening so lets look at each of them.
They found that enclosure not only promotes privacy, but it promotes communication as well. Where as the opposite - a wide open "bull-pen" office discourages communication. Counterintuitive? I can see it. In a big room, no privacy for anybody, you can feel as if there are always some eyes on you, and it can certainly inhibit your behavior. Are you talking to your neighbor? Are others listening? What will they think? Am I wasting time? Is my idea stupid? Perhaps I'll just keep my head down.. Where as stepping into somebody else's space, and sharing a conversation with only them, may allow a less inhibited conversation to happen. The lesson is that communication is more than line of sight - it involves the setting and the comfort level of the workers. The environment is more than proximity and barriers are just as often the emotional ones as the physical ones.
A related idea they found was that enclosure is more important than supervision. The manager that believes he will get better work from his people by having them all in sight does more harm than good. Again supervision is more than line of sight. Furthermore they found that in order for a manager to oversee in this manner their own workstation had to be out in the open as well, and that their work suffered in the same way as their staff.
In some ways this should be no surprise at all that enclosure and control of your privacy would be beneficial for your work. Most people would find a days work spent out in the "public" a tiring experience. No opportunity to retreat from presenting yourself to others, the effort of productive work thrown on top of that as well. Yet we see many examples of open desking in progressive workplaces? Perhaps as we continue the book may shed some light on this contradiction.
Next time we'll continue with more surprises.