Flat organisations may inspire creativity, but they’ll quickly deflate if staff feel directionless.
There are certainly advantages to open, forward-thinking corporate cultures. Mark Zuckerberg hosts weekly Q&A sessions with Facebook staff. Richard Branson has offered unlimited holiday to employees in London, New York and Geneva. These are motivating ideas, but back in the office, unconventional solutions don’t necessarily foster productivity.
Open plan offices have been a staple of western corporate culture for decades, and are especially popular in cities like London and New York where space is limited and rents are high. But does breaking down workplace walls always engender openness and cohesion between colleagues?
A recent survey by the University of Sydney indicated that less than a tenth of workers considered “ease of interaction” with coworkers to be a problem in any type of office setting. Researchers also found that those with a private office are the least likely of all to be worried about their ability to communicate with other people in their office.
Moreover, open layouts can be visually and aurally distracting. A study in the British Journal of Psychology suggests that the ability to perform basic tasks, like memorising prose and doing mental arithmetic, is impaired by unwanted ambient noise and chatter. Most concerning of all, they can be unhygienic environments. A study by the University of Arizona concluded that if an ill person comes to work, roughly half of common surfaces, like lift buttons and photocopiers, will have been covered with the virus by lunchtime.
Lego’s London offices have no fixed seating arrangements. All 120 staff members are encouraged to move around throughout the day; an idea which chief operating officer Bill Padda justifies on the company’s website. “The physical concept of a department has dissolved, and this encourages cross-organisational collaboration.”
Yet depriving employees of their own, fixed space can lower motivation and increase stress, leading to more time off work and reduced commitment to the organisation. As Dr Jane Carstairs of University of Wolverhampton tells WLVdialogue, “having their own space allows people to gain control within that small environment and personalise it with pictures and objects that define their identity”.
Ironically, team cohesion can suffer in non-territorial offices, or hot-desking workplaces (where workers may not get a seat at all). “People who hotdesk are less likely to consistently work in close proximity to the same group members,” writes Kate Bonsall in a journal for the European Association of Work and Organisational Psychology. “This means that their sense of belonging to their group may be less stable.”
Lack of supervision may sound freeing, but minimal oversight from managers can cause problems. “The idea of the flat structure works on the small scale,” says Jeri Ellsworth, a former engineer for Valve, to gamesindustry.biz. “The structure probably works really well with 20 people or so. It breaks down terribly when you start looking at a company of 300 people.”
Cliques can form in the absence of a clear leader, and airing grievances can become difficult. Middle managers tend to get a bad press, but by interpreting the broad initiatives laid out by those at the top into direction and instructions, their role is an important one.
In flat organisations where senior managers are less aware of how things run on the ground, junior staff may end up feeling rudderless, often encumbered with responsibilities that they’re not prepared for.
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