The Open Office and the Hawthorne Effect

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Private and public organizations appear to be drifting towards the open office concept. They intend to decrease costs and increase interaction amongst staff.

We can see the slow evolution from the closed office, to the head high cubicle walls to now the chest high walls. All in the name of integration. We may get back to the day of no walls and simply desks arranged in neat rows and columns. Whenever they show this type of arrangement it always seems somewhat Kafka like; the bleak dystopian future that we are always trying to avoid but seems to be coming for us anyway.

A new study from CTF, Service Research Centre in Karlstad University, Sweden suggests that the more co-workers share a workspace the less satisfied they are and the more difficult it is to have a good dialogue with other staff.

This may have depended on where the studied employees started of course. Anyone with a private office suddenly cast into the open workplace community would be dissatisfied it would appear. Anyone coming right out of school, with no previous experience working in a private office, could well be ecstatic just getting their own private desk instead of one of the communal desks.

Perhaps a staff engagement and satisfaction management technique would be to recall the Hawthorne experiments conducted in the late 20s and early 30s. Here Western Electric in its factories outside of Chicago in the suburb of Hawthorne conducted various experiments regarding productivity. Hawthorne placed the individual in a social context and suggested that performance is influenced not only by a person’s innate abilities but also by their surrounding environment and colleagues.

The experiment attempted to show how the surrounding environment increased productivity. In one factory they improved the overall lighting and kept another factory as a control group. Productivity increased in the first group. As time went by, they added additional improvements to working hours and health breaks. Productivity increased again. Productivity continued to increase even when they returned the lighting to where it was originally.

The experimenters concluded that it was not so much the change in conditions that mattered, but rather the fact that someone cared about the workplace environment and gave them an opportunity to discuss the changes beforehand.

Staff engagement and an opportunity to have an impact on the workplace remains key in job satisfaction.

 

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