It was thought that it would give us more flexibility and improve communications between teams. There were still private offices for senior staff and meeting rooms but for 80% of staff they were in the open plan areas.
The irregular arrangement of desks separated by screens and potted plants was quite a contrast from the old offices in the Town Hall. There we still had a bell-call system for when you were summoned to see “Sir”. But this was a new start.
I didn’t realise at the time that the idea of office landscaping or bürolandshaft had been developed in the late 1950s, partly as a reaction to scientific management, and by the time we were adopting it it was almost over in Germany where it started.
And over the next couple of years there same thing happened in this project. More and more screens appeared and it became like a series of cubicles. People created signals such as flags to say “do not disturb me” and the noise was a problem at times.
To make it worse the council had not installed the air conditioning system as a cost-saving initiative and the windows weren’t designed to be opened so in Summer everyone sweltered and tomato plants proliferated.
One of the purported advantages was that people would communicate more easily. But with the advent of personal computing people were more likely to text each other or send an e-mail than actually walk across the room to have a conversation.
Now researchers at Karlstad University in Sweden have found that workers who share offices have lower job satisfaction.
They looked at ease of interaction among employees and their general well-being and thought that in open-plan offices of between 3 and 20 people workers reported lower levels on both these factors.
“The open plan office may have short-term financial benefits but these may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and well-being.
Decision-maker should consider the impact of a given office type on employees rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility and productivity” said Tobias Otterbring the lead author of the study.
Open plan offices have become significantly more common in the past decade in place of cubicles say the authors (ideas just keep recycling don’t they).However the study supports other research that shows that they interfere with an employees’ ability to concentrate on their work.
It’s been suggested that employees can lose almost a third of their productive time because of interruptions and distractions at work. To get round this some employees started work earlier or worked later to complete tasks without interruptions.
Another expert suggest that we are interrupted every three minutes in such an environment and that it takes up to twenty minutes for us to refocus.
Back in the day, introducing open plan offices (bureaulandschaft), I found those habits seemed even more common when people had to adapt to pen plan offices (I even saw people growing tomatoes), as if they were trying to personalise their space and regain some control over their environment.
These days you’re lucky to have a desk and the work environment is more likely to be stripped down, and minimalist – perhaps barring the odd motivational poster.
Now researchers at Exeter University have confirmed yet again that having greenery around boosts productivity.
“Plants not only boosted intellectual performance but also improved job satisfaction and sense of well-being” says psychologist Craig Knight who led the research.
The research was carried out in three companies in Finland.
Workers were asked to work in a bleak stripped down office doing various challenging tasks and their performance measured. Then one group was left to carry on in that space whilst another could choose plants to put around their desk. A third group had their offices “greened” with foliage provided by a Finnish firm called Naturvention which had sponsored the study.
The researchers found that even a few plants had as strong an effect as organised displays. What people appreciated was the chance to control their environment – a point I made earlier.
Knight said “there is a fashion for minimalist, monochrome styling which pleases managers because it gives them a sense of control. But in reality it crushes the human spirit and we can now measure that. Adding plants makes people happier and productive – but the real benefit comes from giving them autonomy“.
I’ve posted previously on the beneficial effects of greenery in our environment and how it helps reduce street and improve productivity and here’s more proof.
So not sure what the sponsor made of the results but here they are promoting their Naava walls.
UK workers were the 4th unhappiest in Europe just behind Germans, Bulgarians and Greeks.
This might explain our low productivity rates with long hours and high sickness absence rates.
Managers are seen as poor having been promoted because they were good at their previous job rather than for their potential.
On the other hand almost 60% of us said we were happy with our love lives and personal relationships with fewer than 10% very dissatisfied. That put us into 3rd place behind the Irish and the Austrians.
Overall our life satisfaction scores were about average with the Nordic countries, as usual, occupying the top spots.
Even here in the UK where firms like ICI invited Herzberg over and took his and others’ ideas on board, introducing a Weekly Staff Agreement (moving employees from hourly to weekly pay) and similar initiatives.
One idea that came out of this approach to motivating people was the introduction of autonomous working groups in the mid 1970s. In the UK we heard reports of how Swedish companies had adopted these methods in car production and Philips TV makers at Eindhoven (overlooking work by the Tavistock Institute in British coal mines starting over 20 years earlier).
A lot of water and ideas about managing production have passed under the bridge since then although you could argue that with companies either mechanising or offshoring to reduce production costs Taylorism is still alive and kicking
Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology recently published the results of a 13 year study into a Norwegian company which adopted autonomous work groups and moved away from a hierarchical structure in line with the national and organisational culture of labour empowerment (reported by A Fradera in The Psychologist)
They described a system where different team members took on the spokesperson role for a week at a time. The workforce was initially enthusiastic saying things like ” the flat structure has come to stay” and “.. no more foremen pointing fingers and telling us what to do” .
After 8 years however some problems were identified. The transient role of the spokesperson meant they could skimp on onerous duties or things they thought less important like sharing information. Because the spokesperson was responding to team needs it was more difficult for them to resolve disputes or enforce decisions that were unpopular for individuals but good for the organisation.
They concluded that self-management optimised the comfort of the individuals and the team but possibly to the detriment of the company.
So they introduced a system where different people were responsible for different aspects, a distributed leadership model. The 5-M model had someone looking after staffing (Man), someone looking after Machine and so on. This was an improvement and also meant the M-leaders could get together to decide plant-wide issues in their own area of responsibility.
Unfortunately not every problem falls neatly into one category and sometimes problems were passed backwards and forwards. Concrete and immediate problems were resolved but not those requiring coordination, clearly a challenge to a company that wants to empower the workforce.
The researchers don’t say whether or not the company reverted to a more hierarchical system – perhaps that would have been admitting defeat.
It also raises some interesting questions about whether people can develop their leadership skills when they don’t have continuity (doing it only 1 week in six) and whether everyone is temperamentally suited to undertake a leadership role?
People known variously as “Time and Motion experts” and “Work Study or Industrial Engineers” analysed jobs and broke them down into (very) small chunks so that operators on production assembly lines were more easily able to assemble a switch or put wheel nuts on cars (before robots took over).
So Scientific Management both de-skilled workers and led to mechanisation where possible.
Dividing the total assembly time of a product into tasks of a few minutes and of equal duration was sometimes quite a challenge. The work was pretty boring and relentless and conveyor belt breakdowns, often operator induced, provided welcome breaks from the monotony.
In the UK the Tavistock Institute for Social Research had been using a socio-technical approach (combining social, technical, and economic needs in coal mines since the 1950s and were later involved in Quality of Working Life initiatives, a forerunner of the concern about work-life balance. But their work wasn’t widely known.
Following the introduction of new ideas about employee motivation by Herzberg and others ie it wasn’t just the financial incentive (although it appeared to be for car assembly workers whose objective was to earn as much as possible to buy consumer goods (called instrumental motivation) and which was said to have enabled the growth in package holidays – but I digress) many companies tried to make the work more interesting. In some cases they also tried to reverse the de-skilling that had been the hallmark of previous approaches.
Job rotation was one easy way to provide variety and it also up-skilled the operatives. Job enlargement was combining similar jobs together on a permanent basis and thereby increasing the cycle time. Job enrichment was vertical job enlargement which usually meant including some quality/inspection or supervisory element.
And then in the mid-70s we heard that in Sweden at Saab and at the Volvo Kalmar plant, and at Philips in Eindhoven they had gone a whole step further and introduced autonomous working groups. The Kalmar plant was new and small teams worked in assembly bays rather than straight assembly lines. In both the new Volvo plant and the re-organised Saab plant assembly cycle times rose from 2-3 minutes to 20-30 minutes.
Autonomous working groups can include single skill workers or incorporate features of job enlargement and job enrichment by taking responsibility for purchasing, quality control and absence management. There was usually less need for first line supervisors.
Teams were given the facilities to organise the work themselves, within limits. For example, at the Philips plant teams were allowed to decide how they assembled TV sets either in the traditional flow line method or with each person assembling a whole set.
Sweden had a well-educated workforce and companies had high absence rates put down to boredom with the production lines. By the 1980s we were hearing that autonomous working groups had improved job satisfaction and helped to reduce absenteeism but not necessarily improved productivity.
Eventually new methods and approaches came along eg Quality Circles and the use of BPR, and autonomous working groups seemed to fade from the spotlight.