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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