U04: The “Open Space” concept – not for many

If you worked in an office as far back as the 1980’s, it is not uncommon today to walk into any recently furbished office environment and see what you may not normally expect. That is instead of cubicles surround by a periphery of office doors – you would now see just an open space of desks. If anything has survived the 1987 movie “Wallstreet” it is the concept of “open space”. It comes in a variety of configurations, but the variations all have one thing in common: a lack of personal space. Your desk (if you’re lucky to have one assigned to you), is right next to or connected to your neighbor. In the cubicle world a person can at least expect about up to 50 square feet to themselves. Even in a noisy environment this space goes a long way including the fact those cubicles have walls that can create a bit of a safe space from visual distractions.

Two important variables never seem to be considered prior to implementation of an open space concept. 1) The type of job being conducted. I personally have seen areas that were open space, but since the work was sensitive, the phone calls could only be made in “phone booths” that surrounded the work area. Those in the booths looked like they were on a game show being sequestered so they could not hear the answers. 2) And more importantly, the type of person that will be occupying the space. So even if the type of job for example is something that involves a lot of human interaction like sales, it is not really clear how much creativity and collaboration would need to be conducted amongst peers. In that example, the real work, that is engaging with customers, is done outside the office. So perhaps it is a certain type of personality that open space is designed for?

In many cases, the open space also includes managers, so it is possible that one of the occupiers in this space are an authoritarian personality that carries all those traits that designers may have envisioned managers leading their teams, for example: loud, talk-oriented, authoritative, and directive (PSU, 2019). Picture a workspace of several of these personalities in one area, instead of having the modern office you more accurately have a scene from that movie “Wallstreet”. The reality is not everybody who has an authoritative personality (or any personality) is going to have the supporting traits all the time.

The designers may have considered thousands of traits for who would potentially be using these spaces, but likely they may have just simply leveraged Costa and McCrae’s five-factor model (FFM). One would think nearly all the “CANOE” traits would do well in the open space environment. Whether one is Conscientious (thoughtful, organized, and careful not to disturb their neighbor), Agreeable (easy to get along with, comforting to social norms), Neurotic (the obvious exception to not fit well into the open space is anxious, insecure, and hostile) Openness (creative and curious) and Extraverted (social and assertive, the opposite of introversion). It is a safe bet that if most people fit these traits, then the open space would work for most people (PSU, 2019).

However, one trait is overlooked that is often forced to endure the open space concept. According to Susan Cain the author of “Quite: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” in her 2012 Ted Talk “The Power of Introverts”, one-third to one-half of the population are those that are opposite to the extraverts, that is introverts. They have a tendency to be more self-directed, less assertive (not to be confused with shy), and more introspective (PSU, 2019). This trait undoubtedly suffers the most in these environments. The introvert or someone who has the tendency to be introverted while working: creates best, is more productive, and leads most effectively when they can have the solitude they require to carry these tasks. For some of us, open space means working from home instead, or if needed, wearing noise-cancelling headphones. But for many, the open space concept is a loss of productivity and unfair/ unpleasant experience just because of a particular personality trait they may be.

References

PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L09 Personality Defined. Retrieved from:

https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l09-personality-defined?module_item_id=25808490

PSU. (2019). PSY 833: L09 Five-Factor Model of Personality. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l09-five-factor-model-of-personality?module_item_id=25808491

Youtube.com. (2012) Susan Cain: The Power of Introverts. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4&feature=youtu.be

2 Comments

  1. Jessica Ruth Mohn March 24, 2019 at 8:41 PM #

    Hi Russell,

    This is a really interesting blog post topic! I can relate to this because I work for a large professional services firm that has recently begun redesigning all office space to what they are calling the “workplace of the future”. And this new workspace is just as you describe in your post; open, no walls, very close to your coworkers, lacking privacy, etc. There are phone “booths” along the periphery for people to take calls in but the ratio is probably about 1 phone booth for every 7-8 people. This doesn’t work great for the nature of work being done in the space since so many professionals spend most of their day on the phone. And the ethical implication you mention about managers and above sharing this open space is very true and a critical point to consider. Not only because these people likely possess the authoritarian trait but also because they could be working right next to their subordinates that they manage the performance of and this brings up all kinds of potentially awkward working situations.

    Open work spaces were definitely not designed with introverts in mind, as you point out. An introvert’s tendency to self-direct and be introspective (PSU, 2019) is at odds with the idea that they should be interacting with others 24/7 in the office environment. This could even be detrimental to their work success. Introverts are known for their preference to recharge without others around so it’s especially hard on them to be forced to be in these loud spaces without personal space. I personally hope that the “open concept” workspace idea goes away soon and offices design their space to reflect the work that’s being done in the space and also the personalities of the individuals who are using it.

    References

    PSU. (2019) PSY 833: L09 Personality. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l09-introduction?module_item_id=25808489.

  2. Nicole Jean Kennedy March 23, 2019 at 8:56 PM #

    Hi Russell,

    We’ve learned a lot about individual differences over the last few weeks, but I think you bring up another great point. I think the environment also plays a role in how people may behave ethically and unethically. I used to work in a call center. It was simply horrific. The call center environment is similar to what I imagine you were referring to. Our office was set up with two people in a cubical. We could clearly hear conversations from every angle. At one point, I shared a cubical with my manager. When I wasn’t “aggressive” enough on the phone, she would be sure to comment as soon as I hung up the phone. She always “coached me” about the confidence that I needed in my voice and the tactics I could use to have people do what I want. I hated everything about that job but especially, I hated my seat. At one point, with my job on the line, I knew what she wanted me to say. I did it. I pressured the person on the other line to move forward with the sale. Not surprisingly, I was praised by my manager once I ended the call. Later that same day, I applied for a transfer to a different department.

    “Individual differences are the aspects of people’s personalities that make them different from other people” (PSU, 2019). The environment, as you pointed out, can be one of those aspects. I would have never had the audacity, the nerve, or the desire to act in a way that I felt unethical had my manager not been sitting behind me. In this call center, high sales and unethical tactics were expected and accepted. Under pressure, I was faced with a dilemma. I chose to act in a manner which made me uncomfortable.

    When studying ethical leadership, we know that “leadership is not only up to the leader but is an interactive event that occurs between leaders and followers over time” (PSU, 2019a). Often the office environment plays a role in the “influence which requires changing others’ behaviors. When this happens there is an opportunity for both benefit and harm to others” (PSU, 2019a).

    Thanks for the great work this week! – nk

    References

    PSU. (2019). L09 Introduction [Lecture notes]. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/
    1963919/pages/l09-introduction?module_item_id=25808489

    PSU. (2019a). L01 Ethical Leadership [Lecture notes]. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/
    courses/1963919/pages/l01-ethical-leadership?module_item_id=25808366

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