Tag Archive: collaboration

There’s a booming market for fancy noise-absorbing objects

Photo credit: SparkCBC licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Want to take a guess why? Yes, open offices. Sarah Kessler, Quartz, examines the world of open offices and the designers who try to fix them, like Aaron Taylor Harvey, the head of Airbnb’s internal architecture and interior design group. So what does Harvey do to control the din at Airbnb? His team hung “a series of banners set two feet apart and made out of recycled cotton” from the ceiling of a large open space, wrapped surfaces with “sound-absorbing panels that look like fabric wallpaper, and strategically placed sound-absorbing walls to separate areas of noisy collaboration from those with quiet focus.”

But these are new, cutting edge tech companies. They aren’t going to be satisfied with those beige fabric covered cubicle frames that traditional corporations use.  No, today’s designers are making the banners like those used at Airbnb with recycled denim. “[T]hey’re ideal for companies, like Airbnb, that want to be environmentally friendly,” writes Kessler. One company makes “sound-absorption panels that look like wood, and sound-permeable paint that can help disguise a panel as a piece of art,” while another “builds sound absorption into lamps, furniture, and room dividers.”

No doubt the cost of all these high-end fixes are cheaper than, say, providing a quiet space to each of Airbnb’s employees, but at what point do corporate executives and their bean counters decide that maybe the best option is to provide employees with an office where they can actually get their work done?

One reason we don’t hear about “open schools” anymore:

Photo credit: missbossy

They’re noisy! Steve Drummond, NPR, looks back at education policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s which gave birth to the “Open Education” model (among other things). Under this model there were “[n]o whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” and often no walls. Wide open spaces prevailed.

Drummond visited one of the few remaining schools built with the open school concept in mind, Benjamin Orr Elementary School. The goal of the open school was to encourage collaboration (does that sound familiar?), but one glaring problem at open schools like Benjamin Orr is the noise. So the teachers there try to adapt by creating walls within the big open space. That’s not a surprise, because as Drummond tells us:

Historians say that’s pretty much why this open school design died out. Bottom line: Too loud. Too distracting. Teachers hated it.

Benjamin Orr Elementary School is going to be torn down and a new school built next door–a new school that will not be open (and will have better heating and cooling, too). But don’t despair.  Although the open school concept didn’t live up to its promise, one of the teachers Drummond interviews noted that “open education isn’t so much about the floor plan, but the way teachers work together and work with their students.”

 

Yet another article about the failure that is the open plan office:

Why Open Plan Offices Are Bad For Us. Bryan Borzykowski, BBC.com, examines the modern office worker’s nemesis, the open plan office. Borzykowski introduces us to Chris Nagele, a tech executive who adopted an open plan space because he thought it would encourage collaboration among his team members. But Nagele soon discovered that he made a huge mistake. Instead of a free exchange of creative ideas, Nagele found that everyone was distracted, productivity suffered, and his employees were unhappy, as was he.  And he wasn’t alone.

Borzykowski reports:

Professors at the University of Sydney found that nearly 50% of people with a completely open office floorplan, and nearly 60% of people in cubicles with low walls, are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. Only 16% of people in private offices said the same.

Sound privacy means noise.  Your neighbor’s phone call is noise to you, and your call is noise to him or her.  And in an open office, it’s possible to have lots of neighbors. No surprise then that in the U.S., where about 70% of offices are open concept, there is a growing backlash against them.  And there is research that backs up employees’ complaints.  Specifically, “that we’re 15% less productive, we have immense trouble concentrating and we’re twice as likely to get sick in open working spaces.”  That is, the reason employees hate open plan offices isn’t just a loss of status and exposure to a litany of minor nuisances. Rather, “we can’t multitask and small distractions can cause us to lose focus for upwards of 20 minutes.” That is, we can’t do our work.

In the end, the stated motivation for adopting open plan offices–to encourage collaboration–is a lie.  Many companies claim that motivation when the bottom line is that open plan offices are cheaper.  But even if encouraging collaboration really is the motivation, Borzykowski tells us that “we don’t collaborate like we think.”  Instead, he writes:

[I]t’s well documented that we rarely brainstorm brilliant ideas when we’re just shooting the breeze in a crowd. Instead, as many of us know, we’re more likely to hear about the Christmas gift a colleague is buying for a family member, or problems with your deskmate’s spouse.

So, what to do?  The obvious choice is to ditch the open plan office, but that isn’t easy to do after significant funds have been spent on a new space.  When the floor plan cannot be changed, some sort of accommodation should be made, particularly for jobs that require focus, like writing or coding.  Borzykowski reports that some companies “are experimenting with quiet rooms and closed spaces,” while others place sensors around the workspace to track noise, temperature, and population levels, allowing staff to “log on to an app [to] find the quietest spot in the room.”  Or maybe companies should bite the bullet?  According to Chris Nagele, leaving the open plan office behind resulted in his employees being happier and more productive.

Companies employ gimmicks in lieu of addressing noisy workplaces

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As cubicles and wall-less offices proliferate, companies are adding special rooms, lounges, even gardens where employees can take a pause.

, The Boston Globe, writes about the quiet spaces Tufts Health Plan offers to its employees.  While quiet spaces may seem like the newest perk du jour startups offer to lure talent, there’s another reason for these amenities:

Watertown-based Tufts is among many companies now offering quiet spaces where employees can step away from their desks for a few minutes and recharge. Such spaces are especially welcome in open offices, where workers sit in close quarters and noise carries easily. The garden and the quiet room at Tufts, which opened in recent years, have been popular with a small, enthusiastic, and growing group of employees. “The more people hear about it, the more they’re willing to try it,” says Lydia Greene, Tufts’s chief human resources officer. “Pretty soon we will need a bigger room.”

Yes, the reason for the quiet room and garden is to compensate for the uncomfortably noisy work space Tufts imposes on its employees.  Sadly, the article prints the unsupported assertion that “firms eliminate private offices to foster collaboration,” when it’s not exactly a secret that the business case for open plan offices is simple: They’re cheaper.

When one considers the cost of providing quiet spaces plus the time lost when employees seek out a quiet space in which to decompress, perhaps the new trend will be a return to offices?

Link via @jeaninebotta.