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Over Collaboration in the Open Office: Sometimes Even Superheroes Need Their Space

by Keith Fentress / July 28, 2016



Could there be a drawback to the increased personal interaction in today’s collaborative open office? Too much collaboration can turn your super performers into villains.

Open Office Conflict

Last week, a woman I previously worked with emailed me to ask my advice on a situation she was having at her current job. She had taken this job just six months ago and at that time, considered it the “job of her dreams.” But in her email to me, she described the nightmare that the job had become. The interesting thing was that none of her concerns had anything to do with her actual work tasks. Her new job had an open office that strongly encouraged collaboration – both within and across teams. A large percentage of the space layout was dedicated to collaboration. The lack of privacy and quiet places gave rise to an environment where conversations were easily overheard unless you went out of your way to make them private. As a result, her dream job had become a nightmare due to overheard communications that fueled office conflict.

Open offices come with expectations that people will be professional in their mannerisms – courteous and conscientious toward fellow employees. The offices are not designed so much to mitigate our more negative human qualities like eavesdropping, gossip, and manipulation. These negative traits can be found in any office; however, as my friend found out, they can be amplified in an open office that does not offer sufficient acoustical and visual privacy.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

The open office trend has been increasing in popularity for several years, and with companies touting trendy designs and layouts and incorporating personal amenities such as on-site day care, fitness centers, and employee work lounges, what’s not to like? These open office plans – characterized famously by Google and other high-tech companies – share a similar feature. They are designed to increase the amount of time people spend together in the workplace. There is a notion that the right design will influence collaboration, and collaboration will spark innovation, and innovation will lead to increased profits, which in turn results in more coordination and collaboration. But, if employees are spending more time working together in person, aren’t they also increasing the likelihood of workplace conflicts such as the real-life soap opera my friend is experiencing?

Too Much is Too Much

I have long believed in the principle that too much of a good thing is often simply too much. This might stem from my human population ecology glasses in graduate school, where behaviorist John Calhoun’s well-publicized Norway rat experiments left a lasting impression. In his experiments, Calhoun placed a colony of 80 rats in a cage with an ample supply of food, water, and shelter, an environment in which they should have thrived. The relatively small size of the cage, however, ensured continuous intensive interaction. Instead of thriving, the rats descended into what Calhoun described as a "behavioral sink”; a condition where the rats exhibited a wide range of deviant social interaction behaviors.

Soap operas aside, most of our co-workers do not behave like rats. But just as Calhoun found, increasing the time we spend together in an office setting could potentially result in unexpected and unwanted behaviors. There are other issues at play as well, including the role of gender in human interaction. In a recent article posted on the psychology research hub site Library of Alexandria, Swedish researcher Christina Bodin Danielsson points out that studies have shown that men are more prone to conflict in an open office than women. She notes that women normally give and receive more social support among colleagues and goes on to say “this might partly explain the differences we found between women and men in an office design impact on the occurrence of conflicts.”

Batman vs. Superman

Office conflicts have always existed, and as open office concepts continue to evolve, we need to keep in mind that there are benefits to balancing collaboration with the need for personal privacy and space. Are new open office layouts providing the opportunity for effective collaboration when it’s needed or are they making continuous collaboration an obligation? At this point, the answers are mostly anecdotal and there are too few definitive studies to be conclusive.

But as my friend experienced, in-person collaboration is great until it’s not. You may think you are increasing productivity by encouraging more employee collaboration and interaction but this may also evolve into a toxic environment of employee bickering – a human behavioral sink.

The Man of Steel and the Dark Knight are both amazing heroes who individually save the planet, and Gotham City, from evil villains and certain devastation. But when they’re forced to work together, a superhero-sized conflict is the result. Is this the reality of too much time spent together among the shared spaces in your office?

Tags: Open Office Design

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.