Organization and leadership

Is the “open” office a way to control?

Christensen, Morsing and Cheney (2008) argue that research and practice in organizational communication seems to promote a kind of regulation of an employee who is opposed to participation and empowerment, in spite of a real-time picture of the commitment among employees. We can link this to a transmission perspective on communication, which in itself can suggest there are other reasons behind the open office landscape’s popularity than the pursuit of transparency and openness, and instead evolves about power. Deetz and Mumbay (1990, p.37, referenced in McPhee & Zaug, 2000, p.4) points out ”All communication necessarily involves the use of power […].” And an organization’s communication will thus always involve a production and reproduction of power.

From a management perspective, the open office can be seen as a strategy to control what is being said, something that can prevent negative rumors in the workplace. If managers are in the same room, employees should be more limited in what they dare to express. We can see traces from the rational school’s policies on staff and control (Scott & Davis, 2007).

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Cornelissen (2012, p.171) talks about organizational silence as ”[…] corresponds to a ’closed’ communication climate because it involves a shared and widespread feeling among employees that speaking up is of little use, leading them to withhold potentially valuable information”. The focus here is the organizational culture and leadership as a basis for the communication climate being open or closed. On the other hand, one could argue the individual agent munity, and that this type of communication may find other channels, such as lunch breaks or digital communications in various forms (but that these channels themselves will have their implications in the communication process).

But Danielsson and Bodin (2008) and Toivonen (Larsson, 2010) points to the employees’ reduced motivation because of perceived reduced privacy and personal control. Jansson (2009) argues for the individual’s need for privacy and distance, and Galbraith (Scott & Davis, 2007) talks about the need for ”organizational slack” which means margins for error and reduced demands on performance. In an open environment where reduced performance does not seem socially acceptable, integrity, distance and margins may be difficult to create, and the open plan office fails to ensure these needs.

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If open plan offices mean that employees keep quiet about what they perceive as sensitive information, such as negative results or incompetence, it could be bad for business in general, such as the ability for management to make decisions based on data existing in the organization. We can link this to Glauser’s (1984) perspective on unwillingness to communicate further if you feel that the information reflects poorly on your own work or character. The open office does not mean necessarily better knowledge sharing. The image of free communication flows may get dented if one reflects on the consequences of a boss or an employee no longer being able to invite to discussion in their private rooms. To ”invite” may well show a desire to create a personal meeting and also provide space for such physically, both factors that may be valuable for a personal relationship and better communication between the parties.

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Organization and leadership

Is your work environment promoting idea development?

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Rissler and Elgerot (1980) are skeptical towards the open plan office, although they describe studies showing that 75 percent of employees had adapted to the open plan office within one year after changing. Another way to see the performance than the result of an unhealthy work environment, is that it is really about being insecure with the change and new environment, an environment employees are not used to working in.

Brand and Smith’s (2005) study also showed an adaptation by time, after six months in the new open office environment there was a reduced tendency of employees to avoid contact, given the required effort, which may indicate increased communication. An open plan office removes physical barriers to interaction, and employees can talk more with each other. As in the Oticon example, the open environment should help knowledge disseminate more easily between different employees in the organization, which can foster innovation and competitive advantage.

BildGomez and Ballard (2013) talks about how employees’ identification with the organization, in line with the ideal of a unified voice in organizational communication, can foster knowledge sharing. The open environment can thus involve talking to colleagues who would otherwise not have spoken since not required in terms of work, but as open plan offices easier invite to the conversation. This may mean a more innovative workplace where employees can get more and/or different input than they normally would have requested and you can get to know what others are working on, which you would not otherwise have met, which should encourage the development of ideas in the workplace.

A problem however would be if there is a superstition that increased communication, more than valuable communication, is inherently desirable and good, which will be discussed in the coming post.

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Organization and leadership

How do you see communication? It matters for the open office!

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In line with stakeholders’ expectations about openness and transparency, there is a prevailing academic perspective on communication called the ”ritual” model or creating common meaning, where communication is seen as a circular process where individuals and groups together and continuously create meaning (Jansson, 2009), and the perspective is lifted as the modern and ideal (see, inter alia, Varey, 2000; Axley, 1984; Botan & Taylor, 2004). The opposite is depicted as a transmission model where communication is seen as linear transmission, which can be linked to the traditional rational approach where a given input produces a given outcome. Communication was seen here as one-way and with that perception of the staff, the open work area was a way to monitor but also perhaps a way to easily distribute information, while the open office today can be seen as a way to facilitate interaction by lowering barriers for employees to interact with each other, no walls in between. The threshold for providing feedback is said to be lower if you can ”throw” a comment over the table, than if you have to go out of your room and knock on the employee’s office. On the other hand, one can imagine that there are digital channels that may have the same basic function, to quickly throw away an e-mail, skype messages or the like, while the faceless communication can open up for misinterpretation.

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 With Weicks (2004) theory of sense-making, communication in the workplace is understood as a way to create understanding and meaning around work, individual and social activity, which is necessary for agents to have the opportunity to interpret. Weick argues (2004, p 543) ”Those who forget that sensemaking is a social process miss a constant substrate that shapes interpretations and interpreting.”, and we can imagine the importance of relationships, group membership and informal communication for the process. Lowered thresholds for interaction can promote relationships which are part of the individual’s creation of identity and identification with the organization (Gomez & Ballard, 2013; Hatch and Schultz, 2009). Having the employees feel connected to the collective is a social cement that can create motivation.

One should however be aware that there can always be a transmission perspective to communication in an organization, and to new channels such as changing the type of office space from closed to open, never in itself can entails a two-way communication, but it is how they are used. An open office environment can never on its own constitute an open and transparent organizational culture, but it can be a tool to promote it .

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Organization and leadership

What happens to communication in the open office?

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An environment creates opportunities and possibilities for certain behaviors and reactions, as with the office environment, and different structures thus provide different communication patterns. As previous post has pointed out, communication is essential in an organization, with openness and transparency as a current theme (Falkheimer & Heide, 2011). The open communication ideal is based on the idea that the organization is more democratic if communication is encouraged and information is available. Transparency and communication among its members and with the environment is considered positive, and ”closeness, hierarchy and the withholding of information is valued negatively.” (ibid, p 136).

There is also the expectation of the individual employee to be a skilled communicator, for example, evaluates U.S. employers skill in verbal communication as the top three of the most highly valued skills of employees (Keyton, Caputo, Ford, Fu, Leibowitz, Liu, Polasik, Ghosh & Wu, 2013). Cornelissen (2011), however, focuses on management when he talks about organizational communication, and explains it as a management function which creates a framework for the effective coordination of all communications, which aims to create and maintain favorable rumors among stakeholders.

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A theme in organizational communication is integrated communication which means that the organization should not send different messages externally and internally. Most advocates an ideal of sending a message and have a voice that permeates vision, image and culture (see among others Hatch and Schultz, 2009; Aaker, 2004). Organizations’ commitment to openness and transparency, the unified communicated message, and the communication ideal of meaning creation, may explain the popularization of open plan offices, where there are no walls to be able to prevent the employees coming together to interact. Communication must therefore flow across hierarchical boundaries and give all a voice and influence. On the other hand, one can perceive a paradox in a polyphony of individual voices that together constitute the whole, that is, the organization (Christensen & Cornelissen, 2011), and a unified message that permeates everything.

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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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Organization and leadership

Why is the organizational environment open?

Our contemporary commercial world is based on the function of organizations. Producing and sales companies, health associations, financial institutions, activities for public transport, all essential for how we live our daily lives. Scott and Davis (2007, p.11) explains an organization as ”a social structure created by individuals to support the collaborative pursuit of specific goals”. An organization may therefore differ depending on factors such as what kind of business operated, the management and the employees in the organization, how the organizational culture looks like and how you relate to the outside world. An organization adapts to standards but is also involved in creating and recreating them (Scott & Davis, 2007).

 

Organizations and organizing are two closely related concepts. On the one hand there is a general sociological tradition of striving for social order (Cooren, Kuhn, Cornelissen & Clark, 2011), and one specific quest for organizing within organizations to collaboratively to pursue their specific objectives. How then can we understand how an organization is coordinated and structured? By looking at the organizational history and the standards prevailing in society, we can better grasp what has shaped today’s organizations and their coordination of the work environment and employees.

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illustration by Arunas Kacinskas

The history and creation of norms as factors

With industrialization organizations became central in the community and hence the organization of employees. Based on this type of producing industrial operations with a clear division of responsibilities between skilled and unskilled staff, a former military function developed to a rational norm of organizing where efficiency, clear goal focus, formality, authority and control, were the core ideas (Scott & Davis, 2007). The Hawthorne-studies showed that individual workers did not act as rational economic actors, but were driven as much by emotions and perceptions, and that their behavior came from membership in social groups (ibid; Wren & Bedeian, 2009). The ”Hawthorne effect” demonstrates how the rational perspective is missing a human element in its belief in a particular outcome, namely human complexity.

 

Although communication was not in focus the above organization perspective of course created effects. Glausers (1984) meta study of research argues that much of the relevant information needed to make management decisions are in lower organizational levels of the organization, and that the dissemination of it upward in the organization is essential for an efficient operation. Glauser (ibid, p 614) points out that ”Several constraints inherent in organisations make sending information up the hierarchy more difficult than sending it horizontally or downward”. The hierarchical model involves fewer individuals higher up in the organization, which means a structural problem to move the information up, and even if all the information has spread upward managers don’t have the cognitive capacity to process all the information. Moreover, this organizational ideology that managers have a command and control while subordinates follow directives and rewarded accordingly, may create a reluctance among managers to listen to information coming from below, and involve employees who do not see the sense of conveying information upstream (Glauser, 1984).

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illustration by Hólmsteinn Kristjansson

An advanced perspective on organizations and organizing is seen in line with the open perspective where organizations no longer are viewed as self-contained units from its environment (Scott & Davis, 2007). The perspective on how institutions with its rules and norms alters the behavior of individuals has evolved into what is today called a new institutionalist perspective (see among others DiMaggio & Powell, 1991; Sutton, 1996; Merkelsen, 2000). A central concept is isomorphism, which means that organizations tend to be alike by imitation in a quest to be perceived as legitimate by its stakeholders (Cornelissen, 2011: DiMaggio & Powell, 2004). It acts by a ”rational myth” (Scott & Davis, 2007, p 262) that presents mechanisms as rational but which may equally well be counterproductive. For example, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is seen as a way to advantageously position yourself in the market against competing players, but the more that adapts the same strategy in their quest for legitimacy competitive advantages disappear.

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Organization and leadership

What research is saying about the open office

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What is an open office? Brennan, Chugh and Kline (2002) have defined five categories of office: private closed, private shared, individual open, split open and the bullpen (desks arranged in neat rows). Open plan offices would normally fall under the category of ”split open” meaning open space without rigid walls between employees’ desks places.

There is seemingly a paradox in scientific studies about open offices. A large and increasing proportion of the working population is in open office solutions, where improved communication is one of the main arguments of its proponents (Bennan, Chugh, and Kline 2002; Lagergren, 2012; Westerlund, nd; Rissler & Elgerot, 1980). At the same time, few scientific studies have communication as a focus area, or are produced by communication scholars. A cursory check of scientific, peer reviewed papers in Lund University’s database on topic words ”office”, ”open office” and ”open office communication”, shows studies with perspectives primarily from the areas: environmental, ergonomics and design, health and stress, psychology, and Business Administration (Lund University Libraries, 2013). In Sweden, for example, recent studies of offices performed as interdisciplinary study of environmental science and architecture (Danielsson Bodin & Danielsson, 2008; Danielsson Bodin, Bodin & Rönn 2008) and out of the Stress Research Institute (Lagergren, 2012) and the Centre for Health Equity Studies (Larsson, 2010) at Stockholm University.

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The research on the open office landscape and its implications for communication and productivity, show mixed results. On one hand, there are signs of increased communication between workers and managers (Zahn, 1991), but on the other hand report reduced performance, and increased noise and distractions (Hedge, 1982; Sundstrom, Town, Rice, Osborn & Brill, 1994). However, there are two difficulties for today’s communications researchers with these latter studies, namely those carried out before the Internet made its big entrance into both work and private life, which may have opened up for a more rapid and mobile work environment with changing behaviors, as well as a reorganization from private rooms to open offices, which in itself can create anxiety and behavioral change and sound.

Brennan, Chugh and Kline’s 2002 study, however, looked at the longer term after a reorganization, but still showed after six months a negative result in terms of employee satisfaction with open plan offices, and increased experience of interference and noise. A recent study on personal communication (face-to-face) is made by Stryker and Santoro (2012), through a management – and business perspective, which argues that the different results of scientific studies are due to other factors that have played crucial role. Firstly, they pointed out where an employee is placed and how traffic looks there, if people move around the spot, for example, because it is close to a walking path, increasing the personal communication with employees. Secondly, the researchers point to the higher amount of people in the immediate area and the number of informal meeting places, affecting the personal communication positive.

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