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OM in the News: The New Office Is Oh So Quiet

July 13, 2014

 

The dream of workspace serenity

The dream of workspace serenity

“In the prototypical modern workplace,” writes BusinessWeek (July 10, 2014), “desks are spread around open floors or clustered in pods.” The theory is that this encourages collaboration and creates the chance interactions among colleagues from which breakthroughs emerge. And of course, these layouts also allow more workers to be economically squeezed into less space. As a result, the quiet and calm necessary for deep thinking, and the solitude that nourishes the introverted mind, are obliterated. In the past century (since Steelcase–the largest office furniture company–invented the “modern efficiency desk”), the American office has only grown more open. Today, with “flat management structure” and “radical transparency,” even CEOs have put their desks in the bullpen.

This is despite a growing body of research that underlines the open plan’s drawbacks. A 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the idea of open plans improving morale and productivity has no basis in the research literature. An earlier paper looked at physiological and mental effects from being subjected to 3 hours of simulated office sounds. Among other things, participants gave up faster on a set of unsolvable brainteasers—their willpower presumably sapped by simply having to endure the noise. And while workers in open-plan offices do indeed talk to each other more, those conversations are superficial, because the conversants know neighbors can listen in.  Steelcase’s own surveys found that privacy has been the No.1 issue for years. It’s the biggest gap between what workers have and what they want.

Unveiled last month, Steelcase has introduced five new office layout rooms: Be Me, Flow, Studio, Green Room, and Mind Share. Studio has a low chaise, a plush rug, and a basket of rolled-up yoga mats in one corner. In Be Me, a daybed takes up one side of the space, encouraging reclining, even napping. Green Room, designed for introvert-friendly small meetings, has a sectional sofa– introverts prefer to converse obliquely, not face-to-face.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. How have office layouts changed over the years?

2. Why is layout an important OM issue?

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