But they can also lead to an increase in distractions, inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
Office workers are interrupted on average every 11 minutes. This can be a problem for modern workers given that it takes 25 minutes to get into a creative and engaged work flow in which you are able to perform to your full potential.
Workers in a Chinese factory had a curtain put up around their team to allow them to focus on their task. They were found to be 10 to 15% more productive than those who continued to work in a completely open environment.
Interestingly, they also tended to experiment more! This might indicate that whilst there is a certain level of openness that can enable us to think creatively, too much openness can end up stifling our creativity.
Think about how musicians will often perform in public in a group or an orchestra, however they will usually practice alone.
The innovation process similarly involves the focus of individual ideas and energies coming together in a productive way.
Research has revealed that although proximity can provide great opportunities for open innovation, the downside of proximity can be a lack of openness and flexibility.
Simply accommodating a large group of people in one area does not ensure innovation. Just because people are in close proximity to one another doesn’t mean they will be willing and open to share ideas.
It can still lead to isolation and groupthink, which can reduce creativity and innovation.
The history of the office
Historically, the office environment has been through a few significant transitions: from the workers lined up in an open space (their desks in neat rows, busily tapping away at their typewriters), to closed private offices, to cubicles, and back to open space again.
Open offices emerged in Germany in the 1950s to support the easy flow of communication and ideas. The cubicle was then introduced in 1967 under the name ‘Action Office II’ to help workers to concentrate without distractions.
Cubicle workers have actually been found to be the least satisfied of all types of office employees. Studies in Finland, the USA and Australia have all confirmed that 60% of office workers in cubicles are dissatisfied on a number of different measures.
Workers in these environments have the worst of both worlds: limited space and problems with noise interference, and not enough privacy to really focus on getting work tasks done.
Just breaking down the cubicle walls and opening up the office space more is not the solution because open-space office workers have been found to be only slightly more satisfied.
Offices of the future: finding both focus and flow
Everyone has a different psychological makeup and different cognitive preferences — some have been found to be more ‘focused’, while others tend to be ‘mind wanderers’ — so working environments will need to suit both styles.
There will obviously need to be a smart blend of privacy for focus and open areas to encourage connection between people. It will mean setting up specific systems and putting structures in place that actively foster collaboration, rather than simply expecting creative collaboration to take place naturally.
Open offices can foster creativity and innovation – as long as there is a balance of private spaces where people can focus, and deliberate opportunities to collaborate.
Many of the offices in the new Barangaroo building are paving the way for trying to cater for both needs. As long as they can focus on building connected, creative communities, it might just work.
Gaia and Andrew Grant are founders and Directors of Tirian International and keynote speakers who work with organisations from Fortune 500 companies through to not-for-profits worldwide. They have authored The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley), Who Killed Creativity?... And how can we get it back? (Wiley), and more than 30 corporate educational resources.
Undeniably, open office environments may be conducive to the sharing of information and ideas.