As a Millennial, you are likely familiar with the open floor plan that is increasingly popular in offices across America. An astonishing 70 percent of American office spaces have either low partitions or none at all – and 55% of Millennials claim they prefer this setup! Despite its popularity among younger generations, I am still left wondering why?
The benefits of an open-plan workplace are evident in small companies, such as startups and digital media teams, or even specialized public relations departments. Assembling around a table or working in an open cubicle environment can be both collaborative and fruitful when used right. Yet when big organizations are transitioning to open-plan offices at a seemingly exponential rate, hailing better collaboration and improved communication – that’s when I’m left puzzled.
When my previous company transitioned from a traditional office to an open floor plan, the communication between colleagues rapidly deteriorated. Open offices certainly promote more transparency among colleagues, and they also create a sense of equality in the workplace. But let’s be honest—the real motivation behind open offices is that they are much cheaper to implement than traditional office layouts! While you may suggest that cubicles reduce non-work related activities on the computer, research demonstrates open plans can actually limit overall productivity. Don’t try to assert that an office full of people wearing noise-canceling headphones is beneficial for communication – it’s simply untrue!
In 2013, Jason Feifer – senior editor of Fast Company – asserted in an op-ed that “The open-office movement is like some gigantic experiment in willful delusion.” The communication and collaboration sham is the foundation of this false belief. Do any professionals in an open office environment truly believe it? Not surprisingly, one of the top grievances voiced by employees working within open plans is a lack of sound privacy. It’s no wonder that open-office employees find themselves interrupted 30% more than their colleagues who have offices. The side conversations, coughing and sneezing, not to mention the lack of respect for those around them by taking personal calls in the workspace – all these distractions render headphones a necessity. No surprise there!
I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by courteous and considerate colleagues. They are mindful of others while taking their calls in the conference rooms, making sure that any conversations remain at an appropriate volume. Therefore, I have every reason to rejoice! Of course not. It’s wonderful that I have the opportunity to work without being constantly disrupted, even if I wouldn’t wear noise-canceling headphones (which is what I do opt for since our bodies generate unwanted sound). This has resulted in a working environment that is not only uncomfortable for the outspoken but also makes even those who are content remain quiet and afraid of conversing. On top of that, I could come to work every single day and never be required to speak with anyone else. Even though I often want to communicate with someone near me, I don’t wish to disturb the rest of my colleagues or friends. Tuned into my headphones, I’m much more confined and subjugated than in a typical workplace where the discussion is hushed. Unlike an office setting that encourages talking to co-workers during breaks, this setup impairs communication instead of promoting it. Open-plan workspaces completely obviate meaningful conversations among colleagues.
Recently, a new colleague joined our team, and I thought it would be a great idea to show her around the company by introducing her to some colleagues in other departments. The moment we arrived for lunch, she eagerly inquired. “How did you even meet? It seems impossible.” We are building environments where interacting with colleagues is considered impolite and crossing paths with someone from another department occurs rarely, if ever. Open floor plans appear to be collaborative but they only contribute to feelings of disconnection. Let us be truthful about this issue.
I’m still trying to discover how I can feel connected with my colleagues at work, instead of feeling alone. How do I make it easier for me to communicate positively and effectively when walking into another department? What is the best way for me not to be a disturbance in an effortless manner? If your team members are so professional that your office exudes a deathly atmosphere, it’s time to take some initiative. Why not take a break from the office and arrange for an outdoor coffee run with your coworkers? Or, if that’s impossible, suggest gathering at the cafeteria instead. In addition, don’t be afraid to stop by someone’s desk and chat about any issues; after all, humans need to communicate face-to-face once in a while! You’ll quickly find out that as long as you speak at a reasonable volume everyone around you can handle it.
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