Team Meeting in Open Office

The open office is the dominant form of workplace design.

Buzzword alert. Everyone is talking about collaboration – and its importance in the workplace – but it seems like many people mistake collaboration with ‘being in the same room as other people.’
I recently came across a research whitepaper by Steelcase titled “How the workplace can improve collaboration”, which has a ton of great information on collaboration for those interested. For those that won’t read the paper, here are some key segments I’ve pulled out:

What is Collaboration?

“Fundamentally, collaboration is about working with one or more people to achieve a goal, such as collectively creating content, brainstorming, etc. Ideally, all perspectives are equally respected, brought together to leverage the group’s shared mind.”

The open office has many critics these days, but it remains the dominant form of workplace design for a reason: It can foster collaboration, promote learning, and nurture a healthy culture. It’s the right idea; unfortunately, it’s often poorly executed—even as a way to support collaboration.
There’s a natural rhythm to collaboration. People need to focus alone or in pairs to generate ideas or process information, then they come together as a group to build on those ideas or develop a shared point of view, and then they break apart again to take next steps. The more demanding the collaboration task is, the more individuals need punctuating moments of private time to think or recharge.

Companies have been trying for decades to find the balance between public and private workspace that best supports collaboration. In 1980 our research found that 85% of U.S. employees said they needed places to concentrate without distractions, and 52% said they lacked such spaces. In response, thousands of high-walled cubicles took over the corporate landscape. By the late 1990s, the tides had turned, and only 23% of employees wanted more privacy; 50% said they needed more access to other people, and 40% wanted more interaction. Organizations responded by shifting their real estate allocation toward open spaces that support collaboration and shrinking areas for individual work. But the pendulum may have swung too far: Our research now suggests that once again, people feel a pressing need for more privacy, not only to do heads-down work but to cope with the intensity of how today’s working environment.

The open plan is just one of the culprits assaulting our privacy. The increased focus on collaborative work means we’re rarely alone, and the ubiquity of mobile devices means we’re always accessible. In light of these pressures, it’s not surprising that the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desk has increased by 16% since 2008, and the number of those who don’t have access to quiet places to do focused work is up by 13%. Meanwhile, people are finding it harder to control who has access to their personal information, at work and elsewhere. In fact, 74% of the people we surveyed said they’re more concerned about their privacy now than they were ten years ago.

Leaving the office to work at home or in coffee shops or libraries isn’t the answer—at least not for the long term. Too much remote work creates its own set of problems, such as diminished knowledge transfer, decreased engagement, cultural disconnect, a slew of new distractions; and, of course, it makes collaboration more difficult.
Steelcase has been exploring the issue of privacy since the 1980s, and over the years we’ve worked with thousands of organizations in many industries to develop open office environments. Recently we conducted a study of workplaces and workers in Europe, North America, and Asia, using surveys, ethnographic research, observations, and interviews to update our understanding. Here we present new insights into the nature of privacy and offer strategies that allow employees to get away without going away.

Redefining Privacy at Work

Private Office in Black and White

Employees also value privacy at work

Researchers—and architects—have traditionally defined privacy at work in physical terms: acoustical (Can we hear each other?), visual (Can we see each other?), and territorial (Do I have a place that’s just for me?). But in today’s workplace, we’re always connected, always reachable, and to some extent always available, in both the physical and the virtual sense. That accessibility can enhance our interactions but can also leave us feeling overexposed.
So we need to rethink our underlying assumptions about privacy. At Steelcase, we believe that privacy has two distinct dimensions.

Information control.

Employees today wage a constant battle to protect and manage access to their personal information. Over the course of a day, we constantly shift between revealing and concealing aspects of ourselves and our work to and from others: Who needs access to these project files? How can I keep coworkers from seeing sensitive information on my computer screen? Where can I have a confidential conversation without being overheard? Can I read an article or check my Twitter feed at my desk without fear that people will think I’m slacking?

Technology has further challenged our sense of personal sovereignty. Social media, in particular, have done more than any other force to compromise our ability to control our information. Facebook, for example, allows us to curate what we share about ourselves—but only up to a point. Even those who opt out of popular social media sites have a hard time hiding from Google. What if we don’t want coworkers to know where we live, what religion we practice, what music we listen to, or how old we are? We have to make conscious decisions about how we manage our personal information and act on those decisions vigilantly. If we don’t—and most of us don’t—then we’re left feeling uncomfortably vulnerable.

Stimulation control.

The second dimension of privacy encompasses the noises and other distractions that break concentration or inhibit the ability to focus. Stimulation control is in some ways more variable and idiosyncratic than information control. One person’s distraction may be another’s comforting white noise. And, on any given day, our notion of distraction can change. Sometimes we might find background music soothing; other times it might be annoying. However we define them, we all need ways to manage distractions.
Fundamentally, stimulation control governs the ability to focus attention. In thinking about office design, it’s helpful to understand that neuroscience research identifies three primary modes of attention. The first is controlled attention: working on a task that requires intense focus, such as writing or thinking deeply, while willfully avoiding unrelated thoughts and inhibiting external stimuli. When we are in this mode, interruptions and other distractions are unwelcome, and our need to control the environment around us increases.