Shared office space a social risk

A recent study is conflicting its predecessors, suggesting shared space is actually detrimental to collaboration and cooperation.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a monumental shift from age-old cubicles to shiny new shared office spaces – but have hasty employers, keen to encourage collaboration, made a grave mistake?

A recent study – Distractions and workplace angst: Are shared workspaces all they're cracked up to be? – is going against the status quo, insisting there’s a dark-side to ditching tradition.

While previous studies suggest shared spaces facilitate social support, communication, collaboration and cooperation, the study found that co-worker friendships are actually of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open-plan arrangements.

According to the research, shared workspaces are actually more likely to harbour an excess of “employee social liabilities” – such as distractions, uncooperativeness, distrust and negative relationships.

Interestingly, perceptions of supervisor support were also more pessimistic in shared workplaces with the study’s authors suggesting open-plan employees may receive too much monitoring or only informal supervision, whereas other arrangements require dedicated supervision meetings.

“It could also be that, as employees become more irritated, suspicious and withdrawn in a shared workplace, their relationships with their supervisors and colleagues deteriorate,” they noted.

Earlier this year, Meredith Connell – one of New Zealand’s largest law firms – became the first of its kind to embrace an open-plan office structure. Managing partner Steve Hazard said the company has considered the move carefully and put measures in place to counteract any adverse effects.

“We’ve invested in our technology so all staff are fully networked and mobile which suits our lawyers who are often in court or out meeting with our clients where they do business,” he told HRM.

“While staff work in a fully open plan environment, the floor has 29 collaboration rooms, a specially designed library, and five meeting rooms that are fully networked and have high levels of acoustic treatment,” he continued.

Hazard said the new structure would give employees more natural light and better views as well as the ability to collaborate and share experiences. He did, however, admit the approach wouldn’t work for everyone.

“Open plan and shared space is absolutely suitable for a firm like Meredith Connell that has a strong team culture and a sense of collaboration,” he said.

“Someone who has been hunched over a desk for a decade just to get a corner office may not think it’s suitable,” he added. “And for that kind of culture it’s probably not.”

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