Organization and leadership

Why are organizations promoting open offices?

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illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli

With a shift from a closed perspective to the open approaches to organizing, office environments also developed. In the 1950s in West Germany, the foundations were built for a ”more humane environment than previous decades of open offices, with work in straight lines in order to enable effective monitoring”, and in 1966 the first Swedish open office environments was created (Rissler & Elgerot, 1980). Although the open workspace can be seen as a norm for workers during industrialization, where they clearly could be monitored and controlled, the open workspace was not a standard for management to have direct contact with the workers, but strove to maintain a model of authority and formality (Scott & Davis, 2007). With the help of the rational school type of organization standards, we can understand how power and status came to be reflected in the private service room.

 

Seddigh (2013) defines the room as cellular office, and says that even when the office organization begun to switch to open solutions, senior officials and managers have continued to work in private rooms. Ahlsson, Frankenberg, Iwar, Herkeman och Löwgren (referenced in Rissler & Elgerot, 1980) suggest that staff in higher income brackets were bothered more than lower income earners in terms of perceived efficiency reductions and concentration disorders, and they argue that it suggests that the nature of work has significance. An alternative way of looking at it is from a power aspect, namely that those with a history of status and power confirmed by private offices now have similar workspace as the others in the organization, which in itself creates dissatisfaction. On the other hand, the status could be shown by the individual landscape placement, for example near a large window with views opposed to near the toilets. It could also be demonstrated by anyone sitting, for example, close to other managers and executives as opposed to trainees. We can anticipate that the power thus always be communicated in organizational environment, and the open plan offices in itself does not necessarily mean a more equal workplace.

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Organizations’ quest for legitimacy, with isomorphism as a phenomena, can explain how the open plan offices spread in organizations and has become a symbol for the modern organization. Open plan offices were popularized in the 1970s when many companies implemented the design based on arguments that they created flexible spaces that were more functional when changes in staff numbers and structure. A movement was also to remove physical barriers to communication between individuals, groups and departments, to strengthen morale and productivity (Brennan, Chugh & Kline, 2002). An example of isomorphism can be seen in the trend around openness and transparency in and around organizations (see, inter alia Falkheimer & Heide, 2011; Fombrun & Van Riel, referenced in Cornelissen, 2011), where open communication seems to require open spaces.

 

Foss (2003) sees this in his example of a tendency for organizations to mix the hierarchy of markets to enhance entrepreneurship and motivation in the business, so-called internal hybrids, where he points to the company Oticon and its organization. The knowledge-based organization connects communication and transparency where information should be freely disseminated in the business, which requires open office environments. On the other hand, there is a rational perspective around the control remaining in the open office space. First, we see a bureaucratic control (Scott & Davis, 2007) embedded in the social and organizational structure, built in professional categories and responsibilities. Secondly, we see a social control (Sutton, 1996), a kind of paradox of subjection in transparency, where employees and managers are in the same room creating an awareness that others see what I do as an employee and hear what I say.

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Just like Oticon implemented an open office landscape, popular private employers such as Google and Microsoft have done the same, as well as the majority of public organizations (Conning, 2012). 1996 cell offices were discontinued at one of Skåne’s largest employer, Tetra Pak (Jurjaks, 2013) with approximately 4,000 employees in Lund (Tetra Pak, 2013). Another employer is the county council Region Skåne, with the central regional building in Malmö awarded the Urban Development Prize 2011, where reasoning among other things was ”[…] where every floor has open plan offices which are accessed via bridges. A thought about supporting the opportunities for increased spontaneous meetings in the workplace.” (Region Skåne, 2011). Legitimacy comes from how the open office landscape is in line with stakeholders’ expectations of the organization, by signaling modernity, flexibility and transparency in operations. The environment should enable an organizational culture where interaction is promoted, and signaled. There is also an economic aspect which means reduced costs for the organization, since open office solutions are both cheaper to build but also to maintain (Brennan, Chugh & Kline, 2002), which is to be requested from two specific stakeholder groups, namely the management and the shareholders’ perspective. The open plan office is here a way to promote the organization. Partly to external groups such as the media to pay attention to the organization and positively reflect on their audience, potential employees who will be attracted to apply to the organization, or customers who will want to associate with the organization and buy its products or services. Secondly it is a marketing internally to promote a particular organizational culture where communication, flexibility, and openness is considered desirable.

 

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