Some of the appeal of a TV drama like Mad Men lies in its anachronistic portrayal of the office culture of 1960s Manhattan. A pool of typists (all female) punch the clock and work outside private offices – hierarchical sanctuaries for executives (all male) who make deals and seek creative inspiration through alcohol, a drinks cabinet a de rigueur alternative to today’s water cooler.
The use of open plan working spaces in later episodes signifies social change, wall partitions are removed, gender and age prejudices are exposed and chipped away, creative solutions are increasingly the result of collaborative working practice in open spaces.
It’s a fictional drama but with an accurate historical premise, according to Carol Kulik, Research Professor in Human Resource Management at UniSA’s School of Management, within the Centre for Workplace Excellence, who explains that human management researchers first became interested in open plan designed offices in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“In that era, we started seeing an increase in open plan offices that affected a much wider range of jobs. So, historically clerks and typists might have worked in a ‘pool’ environment – but their managers consistently worked in private offices.
"In the late 1960s we started to see managers and professionals also working in open office environments,” Prof Kulik says.
Today, it’s estimated that around 70 per cent of offices are open plan and are so designed to encourage communication and enable employees to see positively how their work impacts other people.
Fitting into that mould, on the 16th floor of South Australia’s State Administration Centre, Department of Premier and Cabinet chief, Kym Winter-Dewhirst, recently implemented a $500,000 office refit which has been described as a template for public sector reform.
Cubicles have been cropped in favour of an open plan layout (with designated quiet areas), the use of new technology encourages greater collaborative practice and hot-desking means no-one has a personal desk or office – including Winter-Dewhirst himself.
“It’s about providing a contemporary workplace for staff,” Winter-Dewhirst says.
“By freeing up the dead space, more people can work from here – reducing our overall rental footprint.
“Removing these barriers has also meant people are working in an environment that’s more conducive to collaboration…which is essential if we’re to work more effectively.”
Prof Kulik says another factor driving new interest in open plan offices is organisational interest in sustainability.
“In general, open plan offices are more energy-efficient, they are easier to heat and cool and they are more flexible - it’s easier to move furniture to accommodate different needs,” Prof Kulik says.
“The SA Water House is one example where the open plan office concept has been carried through in amazing detail. I toured the building when it first opened and I remember learning that employees were discouraged from having wastebaskets at their desk – that forces you to stand up and walk through communal space (ideally connecting with colleagues throughout the day) in order to get rid of a bit of rubbish.
“Also there is one model of chair throughout the building; there are no variations in the chair quality; the managers explicitly rejected the idea of having leather versions in the conference room but woven versions elsewhere.”
Such an egalitarian vision has become a reality for many modern offices, but what happens when open plan fails to contain egos?
“Traditional offices display lots of status symbols (size of office, doors that can be closed, quality of furnishings); open plan offices strip the work environment of those symbolic status indicators and for some people, such as managers, that can result in a perceived loss of status,” Prof Kulik says.
“In research I’ve been involved with, we have heard stories about managers who have strung doors from the ceiling (because of course they didn’t have walls) or mapped out their ‘office’ on the floor using masking tape.
“In some organisations, employees develop ‘knock knock’ rituals to ask for permission to interrupt and enter a manager’s space. These are all examples of how people try to maintain a hierarchical culture in an environment that no longer aligns with that hierarchy.
“Organisations sometimes don’t realise that an open plan office signals some fundamental ideas about the organisational culture such as projecting a less status-focused culture.”
The one-size-fits-all ethos of open plan working can also dislocate another, altogether more substantive group of people – introverts.
Bestselling author and co-founder of the Quiet Revolution group, Susan Cain, championed the power of the introvert in a TED talk with a call to stop “the madness” of constant group work and encourage greater recognition of the advantages of working in quieter, low key environments.
“About a third to a half of the population are introverts,” Cain says.
“The key to maximising our talents is to put ourselves in a zone of stimulation that’s right for us. But here comes the bias - our workplaces are mostly designed for extroverts and extroverts’ need for stimulation. The new ‘group think’ holds that all creativity and all productivity comes from a very oddly gregarious place.
“Solitude can be a crucial ingredient to creativity and for some people it can be the air that they breathe.”
This is something that Prof Kulik relates partly to ‘stimulus screening’, the ability to block distraction and stay focused on the task in hand.
“The most effective open plan office designs provide opportunities to escape some of the stimuli by booking a private ‘pod’ or conference room, giving an individual employee a sense of control over the environment," Prof Kulik says.
“But that’s not the only way to make open plans work – there is also some research that suggests open plan designs are more effective if they are less dense (more space between co-workers) and/or include some partitioning. You can see how all of those variations turn down the stimuli ‘volume’ in the work environment.”
The ability to “stimulus screen” is the vanguard message of time management seminars everywhere and increasingly a part of the defence armoury of the modern professional whose working life – thanks to mobile communications – is seldom framed within the walls of a single office or a 9am-5pm time frame.
Dr Natalie Skinner, Senior Research Fellow at UniSA’s Centre for Workplace Excellence, refers to technological innovations in communication, in this regard, as a double-edged sword. She says tablets and smartphones create the capacity for working out-of-hours and off-site, but with an obligation or expectation – an “electronic leash” in which to do so.
“It’s most likely that the optimal approach for productivity, creativity and well-being is a mixture of remote/online and in-person contact in a physical office. There’s not likely to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Dr Skinner says.
“Instead, organisations, teams and co-workers should be encouraged to be flexible in their thinking as well as their work practices, and be willing to trial different ways of working to find the best approach that suits the kind of work that is being done and the particular people who are involved in doing the work.”
Adelaide company Intersect has recognised the importance of flexibility, and provides a variety of co-working spaces across two locations in central Adelaide.
These spaces comprise state-of-the art office facilities, communal work areas for collaborative enterprises, boardrooms, quiet working areas and even family rooms and an on-site barrista.
The range of working spaces are designed to meet the multiple needs of a diverse range of companies with between 40 and 50 individual businesses currently signed up as members of Intersect, giving them access to these facilities and other benefits including dry cleaning and gym membership.
The unique aspect and advantage to businesses working in this environment is the opportunity to build referral relationships and networks, says Intersect Director, Kathy Carruthers.
“Quite clearly there’s a need at the corporate end of the market for collaborative space, for access to a network, for access to the collegiate benefits you get from working with other people that you don’t get when you work on your own,” Carruthers says.
“That includes access to good quality meeting rooms and a desire to not have to take out a long lease on office space and the economic risks associated with that.
“The co-working industry is big internationally and it is growing in Australia, and in Adelaide we are operating in a niche that hasn’t really been picked up before – providing co-working spaces in the corporate sector.
“The type of clients that our members work with can require a range of professional services. A single client may require some HR service, fundraising talent, a legal person to review contract documents or marketing assistance.
“Co-working in this space creates opportunities to promote natural referral relationships. In an environment where different professionals share space, you talk together with other members and that helps establish a professional trust and creates opportunities to connect and refer clients, depending on what their needs are.
“Bigger organisations, accounting firms and banks are moving towards co-working environments. We’ve heard of firms giving employees budget to go and work in the best co-working environment that suits them – it can make more economic sense.”
Intersect’s working spaces and membership benefits echo predictions made in a report issued by Aruba Networks and The Future Laboratory (a European consultancy), in which the term “Bleisure” (business + leisure) is coined to describe the future design of office spaces and work practices.
Referring to Google’s myriad range of private working interior spaces in its UK offices – designed to foster specific forms of productivity, and the use of terms “chance-encounter corridors” and “serendipity corners” to encourage interaction and openness – The Future Laboratory predicts other working environments will soon follow suit.
It’s a changing world for our office environments and one where The Future Laboratory report states that the very term “office” will soon be obsolete. Perhaps the days of fluorescent lighting really are numbered.
The Centre for Workplace Excellence @cwexunisa