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17 March 2016

Did Google really get it wrong? Workplace misery and other casualties.

An article recently published in the Washington Post sparked some internal discussion at Planon. In her article ‘Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace’, Lindsey Kaufman describes her bad experiences with moving to a new and open plan office type of environment.

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To be honest, I felt for her and my first inclination after reading this episode of personal distress was to radically abandon the whole notion of flexible office concepts altogether. However, when thinking about all the investments we have made this far, some precautions  need to be taken into account.

What was it that made an intelligent and energetic person so unhappy? I decided to read Lindsey’s article once more time and tried to analyse what had gone so wrong. Without pretending to have grasped this from just reading the article, there are some very interesting notions to be taken away from her story:

Quote: ‘bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye…’
The flex concept seems to have been introduced at Lindsey Kaufman’s company in a ‘one-sided way’, as a technocratic measure (reducing the number of workplaces) only. A characteristic value of flexible working is that it provides greater autonomy for the workers themselves, allowing them to work wherever suits their needs best.

The other side of the coin is that this requires a different management style. ‘Managing by presence’ does not work anymore; it should be based on output and transparency instead.

Quote: ‘I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time’
Working in more flexible ways can also mean working hours are flexible. When someone leaves the  office, this does not automatically mean that someone is done working for the day. Or maybe they are. If there is transparency regarding performance and accomplishments, there really is nothing to worry about, is there? The sad thing is that Lindsey Kaufman’s company really missed a trick here. Flexible working provides a real opportunity for establishing a healthy ‘work-life’ balance if managed well.

Quote:
‘All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system’
Lindsey refers to a ‘disturbance’ factor that seems to be inherent to shared workplace areas. This topic is an ongoing conversation between workplace designers, and real progress is being made in this area. My question for Lindsey is however: do the corporate spaces not provide different options and settings? We see new office setups that offer different types of workplaces: for focused work, various types of meetings, team work and so on. When someone has the option to choose from different types of workplaces or has the option to work elsewhere such as at home, frustrations like these will easily disappear.

It is all about workplace effectiveness

Lindsey Kaufman points out issues with ‘productivity’ around new workplace concepts. And rightly so. Just a small decrease of productivity can completely destroy the financial business case for flexible working. However, for the major part this has nothing to do with the workplace design as such. In this example, an additional wall or two could have helped. But a re-evaluation of the way work itself is managed seems more eminent. New ways of working require new management styles.

It might be a good idea for Real Estate, Facility Management and Human Resources teams in companies such as Lindsey’s, to join the IFMA Workplace Evolutionaries community. You can expect to find a lot of like-minded people there, struggling with the same type of issues, looking for better ways to create a great workplace. And we have a lot of fun in the meantime too!

Erik Jaspers
Global Product Strategy & Innovation Director