I recently read an article by John Tierney at the New York Times about the downside of open office layouts. Many companies choose to forgo high walls between workspaces in an effort to bring down physical barriers to communication and encourage idea-sharing and collaboration among workers.
One consequence of these redesigned office spaces is that lack of “speech privacy” is now the number one office grievance cited by employees. What’s more, open office plans can actually backfire. According to Professor Anne-Laure Fayard, quoted in the article, studies show that “people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard.” The Corporate Executive Board office in Arlington, VA has a fairly open layout, and I admit to having sent instant messages to coworkers sitting only a few feet away so that our conversations wouldn’t disturb others. So much for encouraging open communication…
And what about the more figurative noise that can invade our work life and distract us from our priorities? There is no magic white noise machine to drown out bad research requests, but functions that have criteria to easily assess the importance of ad hoc requests can put some important boundaries on their work space and cut through noise from internal clients.
Norwich Union uses a project prioritization scorecard, built back from firm strategy, to ensure that internal resources are allocated appropriately. In addition to enabling Research to match its level of support with the project’s impact, the scorecard’s transparency also encouraged line partners to ask better questions.
Disney screens out low value-added research with a formal review process to assess the impact of potential projects, and sends requests of questionable importance along to senior management for final arbitration. With this practice, Research reduced project volume by 75 percent.
Our offices might be getting noisier, but our to-do lists don’t need to be.