Retaliation Against Open Floor Plan Work Spaces

The Bullpen.

It’s an appropriate name. Everyone is raging to get out, do their own thing, and make their own mark in the world. It’s time to face the fact that this is just another fad that has swung too far in its particular direction. What’s that saying? Too much of one thing can backfire?

Let’s draw a little historical picture for everyone. Work, back in the early days of humanity, was an individual task. That is because there was often only one person with the knowledge to do a certain thing in each settlement. The only things multiple people did were tasks that were necessary for the survival of the entire settlement. Farming, for instance, was one of those tasks. Eventually, it was discovered to be more efficient to have multiple people doing the same work. This allowed whomever held the ownership stake to make more money. When we hit the Industrial Revolution, this work done by multiples was done in an open work space because of the factory nature of most businesses. Those who managed or owned each company had earned the “right” to their own space in the facility in the form of an office. They also were the people that had to keep all of the paperwork to track everything about the business, hence another reason for them to have cordoned off space.

Moving to the beginning of the Information Age, there began to be more white collar work that was being done. As well, due to the advent of technology, there was less of a need to keep paper records. Then everyone started focusing on a new buzzword. Culture. How do we improve company culture? How do we help teams be better at what they are doing? Then Silicon Valley and its entrepreneurs introduced an idea that existed in small batches as an all-encompassing “fix”. No one has an office. It’s all shared work space. Not only did many business take that idea and run, so did a number of schools. But there is now a backlash at the harshness of that pendulum swing. The social nature of human beings have degraded the performance improvements that were supposed to happen from not having any walls.

A number of businesses are now realizing there are certain things that must be considered in this conversation.

  • What type of work are people doing?
    • Most companies will have multiple groups doing diverse work. Some need that closeness and collaboration that come with open work spaces. Others need to have individual work environments. An example are programmers. Considering software is the infrastructure that ties all business together these days, programmers are an important linchpin. Whether you are a boutique firm  that hired your own programmer, or a specialty firm that employees hundreds of programmers, it actually is important to give each of them a closed-off space. The people who are typically the best at programming are types that lose a lot of time every time they are pulled from their work for even the most mundane of distractions. Decreasing those distractions are key.
  • What type of people are you employing?
    • You must have an honest conversation with yourself before hiring someone about what types of people are likely going to be the best candidates. An ever growing understanding of the brain has brought to the forefront that there is a distinct group of neurodiverse individuals that a company could hire for any number of positions, but could benefit from their own individual space just to facilitate general function. I am talking about people who are on the autism spectrum. Many of these people may be at a level on the spectrum that was formerly diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome. Fact of the matter is that these may be some of the smartest people you will ever run across. However, their brains are hardwired in a different manner than most. A controlled space is one of the things often recommended for neurodiverse individuals.
  • Money
    • This is always part of the conversation. I once had a business school professor say that everything has a purpose for existence. A business’ purpose for existence is to make money. There is nothing inherently wrong or evil about this purpose. How your space is or isn’t subdivided out will cost you a certain amount of money. We can make obvious cases all day. The not so obvious case is going to be that of long term goals with money. There are costs of acquisition and employment. What a lot of companies will not do is compare these numbers to total anticipated revenue for each employee. What is someone in any given position likely to earn the company. If you set them up to be the most productive they possibly can, yes you could lose a little more up front, but you would gain a lion’s share on the back end. Long term profitability is always the key that not all businesses see.

Is the retaliation against open floor plan work spaces real? Yes. At least, it is if you talk to the right person. But the bigger lesson is moderation in all things.

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