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Open Office Design = Open Communication?

A Research Proposal
Modern businesses realize the importance of office environment, design and their effects on communication, which in turn affects productivity. The traditional offices and cubicles that we are used to are being reconsidered and replaced by a completely different design. This innovative plan, called open office design, does away with interior walls and partitions, and opts instead for shared workstations and casual meeting places. The premise is that this particular design will facilitate more teamwork and better communication, and allow communication to occur more naturally, because there are no visual hindrances between coworkers. On the surface, open office design seems like an ingenious and logical idea. Without barriers, the flow of communication in the work place will occur more frequently, more naturally, and will build better relations between both coworkers and superiors. Or will it? Many researchers have questioned whether an open office will actually improve communication among coworkers, and what type of communication it will facilitate. This research will seek to determine whether open office design enhances or inhibits communication between coworkers in a corporate office setting, as well as determine the types of communication it enhances and/or inhibits. Good communication is vital to the success of a business. Research examining the impact of office design on communication will be relevant and useful to corporate offices seeking to improve communication, and thus, productivity. Theory The foundation for communication in an open office design is based on dramaturgical theory. This theory as related by Julia Woods in her book, Communication Theories in Action, helps to clarify the dynamics of communication from a performance standpoint. The premise of this theory is based on the idea that each interaction between individuals is a performance. The setting and/or context is the stage, and the people involved are the actors. Individuals manage particular images in order to project themselves a certain way to others. This is referred to as impression management. According to Woods, impression management is the process of managing setting, words, nonverbal communication, and dress in an effort to create a particular image of individuals and situations (Woods, 2004, pp. 119-120). This creation of images can be viewed as both unintentional and manipulative. As previously mentioned, the dramaturgical theory views the context of interactions as a stage. There are two types of stages addressed in this theory: front stage and back stage. Front stage is what is visible to the audience, while back stage allows the actors to relax without worrying about front stage presentation (Woods, 2004). Similarly,

in real life interactions, back stage is a place where one can relax, vent, and be him or herself without necessarily having to worry about what others think. Wood proposes that both are needed for communication, and goes so far to say that, Competent communicators know how to keep backstage behaviors out of view of the audience so they dont invalidate the front stage performance (Woods, 2004, pp. 121-122). With the dramaturgical theory in mind, there are several things to consider when thinking about office design and communication. First, impression management is vital to every employee. Personal office space (e.g. cubicles) is one way to create a particular image. It is important to consider the ramifications of removing that aspect of impression management. Second, cubicles can provide a back stage for employees where they can relax after front stage interactions. They also provide a sense of privacy and personal space that, as Woods discusses, allow for a place to keep back stage behaviors private that might otherwise discredit front stage performances (Woods, 2004). The effects of removing the back stage (the cubicle) could possibly have a large impact on overall business communication. In light of these particular concerns, I will use the dramaturgical theory to further understand the effects of open office design on communication. Related Research The concept of open office design is not a new one, and with big name companies such as Cisco Systems and Google converting to such a design it has been brought to attention once more. Supporters tout the success of an open office, claiming that it promotes higher morale and increased productivity. The assumption is that the quantity and quality of communication interactions are increased. These are logical assumptions. Surprisingly, much of the research in this topic contradicts these claims. In 2002, Aoife Brennan, Jasdeep S. Chugh, and Theresa Kline published their research concerning the effects of open office design in an article titled Traditional versus Open Office Design: A Longitudinal Field Study. A gas and oil company in Canada relocated its employees from private offices to an open office design, where employees shared space with two to nine employees. Brennan, Chugh, and Kline interviewed twenty employees prior to the relocation, one month after, and again six months after. They found that, overall, the effects were negative, and results were consistent over time. Interestingly, the article stated that The primary complaints listed by employees were lack of privacy and confidentiality and increased noise (Brennan, Chugh, and Kline, 2002, p. 294). These findings coincided with many other studies cited in the article. This led the authors to propose that, open office designs do not facilitate communication among coworkers. In fact, employees often feel that open office designs decrease communication because they prohibit confidential conversations (Brennan, Chugh, and Kline, 2002, p. 294). This article alone provides significant research concerning communication and the effects of an open office. Not only do Brennan, Chugh, and Kline show the negative

effects of an open office, but they also give specific categories in which employees were most negatively affected. Their findings that employees primary complaint was a lack of privacy and confidentiality shed light on the consequences of removing the back stage, as discussed earlier. Without an individual office space or cubicle, employees no longer have a place to recuperate from the demands of front stage interactions. A similar study was done previously in 1979 by Greg R. Oldham and Daniel J. Brass. Their article, titled Employee Reactions to an Open-Plan Office: A Naturally Occurring Quasi-Experiment recorded their research on a newspaper organization who relocated from a multi-cellular office to an open office design. This new office space had no private offices, nor had any interior walls/partitions higher than three feet. Oldham and Brass conducted surveys for 128 employees eight weeks prior to the relocation, nine weeks after, and again eighteen weeks later. As a whole, the results were consistently negative. The surveys provided specific descriptions from employees concerning the lack of privacy and confidentiality, and increased interruptions from coworkers (Oldham and Brass, 1979). Oldham and Brass work provides further evidence that open office design does not improve communication, contrary to popular belief. The authors referred to several employees stating that it was impossible in the open office to engage in a private conversation either with coworkers or with supervisors (Oldham and Brass, 1979, p. 280). Likewise, supervisors felt that they could not provide evaluative feedback to employees because of the lack of privacy. Greg R. Oldham conducted another study in 1988 on Effects of changes in Workspace Partitions and Spatial Density on Employee Reactions: A Quasi-Experiment. This was a unique study because Oldham acknowledges in his introduction that open office design presents many problems. He conducted studies on two different variations of open office design. The first office had multiple height partitions between each desk. The second office was an open office with substantially more space per employee. Oldham administered a questionnaire to employees, and found that both of the variations had positive effects. More specifically, those employees who moved to the low density (more space per employee) office showed even more positive results. Oldhams explanation for this was that, the low density office provided protection from overstimulation and at the same time allowed employees to observe how their own work relates to the work of others (Oldham, 1988, pp. 253-258). Oldhams study at the time was one of a kind. His research provided information on solutions to the problems that open office design presents. In fact, most research points to the ineffectiveness of a standard open office design. Oldhams work is extremely relevant because it points researchers to open office variations that will enhance communication, more so than traditional offices/cubicles, and even open office design. Research Methodology

Much of the research done concerning open office design is of a quantitative nature. Researchers have relied primarily on questionnaires and surveys answered by employees to determine how communication is affected. These are helpful in providing statistical evidence from a large number of employees of particular companies. These surveys measure employee perceptions of communication in an open office environment. However, using a different research method can illuminate the problem even further. Examining open office design and its effects on communication by observing interactions in the workplace can shed light on specific types of communication that an open office enhances and/or inhibits. This type of qualitative research, known as ethnography, relies on observation to understand the problem. According to Woods (2004), ethnographers rely on unobtrusive methods, which are means of gathering data that intrude minimally on naturally occurring interaction. When applied to my own research, ethnography will be helpful in answering the question of whether open office design enhances or inhibits communication, and what type of communication it facilitates. The procedure is straightforward: obtain permission to visit from several different companies with an open office floor-plan, and observe employee interactions in these settings for one to two weeks. As the researcher, I would be taking field notes on how often employees interacted, as well as the quality and type of communication. Expected Outcomes Based on the dramaturgical theory, related research, and the ethnography method used, several things can be expected as a result of my research. First, I expect my results to be consistent with previous research, in that a standard open office design would inhibit overall communication. In particular, observations would show that private, oneon-one communication would be inhibited. On the other hand, I believe that we would see group communication to be enhanced with this type of design. Most importantly, ethnographies of different companies would show that enhancement or inhibition of communication would depend upon the extent of an open office design, as Greg Oldhams research in 1988 portrays. Questionnaires and surveys provide information about employees perceptions and opinions of open office design. Ethnography of the communication in this environment will add to the body of knowledge because it provides concrete evidence through observation of how communication is affected. Businesses can look to this evidence when considering their own office design and be able to make knowledgeable choices. References Brennan, A. Chugh, J.S., & Kline, T. (2002). Traditional versus open office design: A longitudinal study. Environment and Behavior, 34(3), 279-298.

Oldham, G. (1988). Effects of changes in workspace partitions and spatial density on employee reactions: A quasi-experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73(2), 253-258. Oldham, G., & Brass, D.J. (1979). Employee reactions to an open-plan office: A naturally occurring quasi-experiment. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 267-284. Woods, J.T. (2004). Communication theories in action: An introduction (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.