How To Make Learning Happen In Open Offices

Wake up world! Cubicle nation is being taken over by open office plans. At least seventy percent of all offices in America currently have an open floor plan.

The open office plan motivation for many companies has certainly been cutting real estate costs, while trying to sell the hope of greater collaboration with colleagues. Meanwhile, some offices have carefully looked at architectural design and layout to actually make creative use of their available space.

Conceived in the nineteen-fifties, the open office concept was initiated to facilitate communication and idea flow. Now, over fifty years later, the verdict is questionable to whether those initial goals are being achieved.

Negative Impact on Learning

How will learning and training be affected by this proliferation of open office plans?

Negative feedback and research findings on the outcomes of open office plan layouts are abundant. These will be examined through the lens of potential impact on learning.

When organizational psychologist, Matthew C. Davis reviewed studies of the “rise of the open-plan office”, he discovered open offices affected employees’ attentions span, productivity, creative thinking and overall satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees reported more uncontrolled interactions with others and higher levels of stress. They also experienced lower levels of concentration and motivation.

Whether instructor led training, online eLearning or blended learning, an open office could potentially impact personal attention to a computer, mobile screen, or physical presentation, if noises or visual distractions occur. Trying to concentrate on material presented and still be motivated to learn will be difficult.

Even young, multi-task-savvy Generation Y employees found certain noises distracting in open-plan offices, according to psychologists Heidi Rasila and Peggie Rothe. But the trade-off for them was outweighed by a greater sense of camaraderie and time socializing with colleagues considered to be friends.

Positive Promoters for Learning

So how do you find harmony with the demands for open office plans and the need for learning?

Rebecca Greenfield’s article for FastCompany on Here Is An Open Office Any Employee Would Love” sheds some light on how harmony could happen. She shares a powerful lesson in effective open office design gathered from interviewing Brian Collins, head of New York City based branding firm, Collins. The lesson is simple, “the best work spaces are designed with workers (and the type of work they do) in mind.”

In maximizing creativity versus just collegiality, the architects for Collins designed an open bullpen area where most staff works. Without barriers or dividers workers see each other’s work and can help out or offer input.

To give a degree of privacy the tables are designed so no one sits facing another person. Product managers actually sit in a separate area giving them both privacy and communicating their authority.

Davis’ research, quoted above, found open offices foster a symbolic sense of organizational mission, and employees feel like they are part of a more laid-back and innovative enterprise. Such openness philosophically supports an engaging learning environment.

To stimulate creativity when people get stuck, the Collins office decorated a library with artistic stimuli around the room on walls and shelves, hundreds of art books available and a classic black and white movie playing and projected on a wall. Such an environment triggers thinking and learning outside the box.

Naturally, if you have the ability to screen out noise and visual distractions easily, an open office concept will likely be no problem for you.

Applying Open Office to Learning

Similarly, the best learning environments are designed with the learner in mind and the type of learning needs. The change for most of us will be giving permission and time to allow exploration within the workplace and reflective learning both alone and together with others. This means learning can, and should, happen during regular workdays and not just when taking a course.

The open office concept gives employees a more flexible workplace. This provides options for different learning opportunities at a variety of locations and on times.

With headsets available you could watch a specific online learning program to meet compliance or professional development needs.

Setting up diverse physical locations and contexts for learning could actually create novel opportunities for employees to learn from. Imagine a problem solving board where employees place a written statement of a current work problem. Colleagues post notes with question and responses to comments from peers to address the problem.

Or a corner of the office is used as a learning corner where presentations are made on topics meeting regular learning development needs. While specific employees could be invited in the traditional manner, it also allows those who “overhear” to be motivated to participate when something piques their interest.

David Wedaman, in his research on Building a Learning Environment in the Workplace” at Brandeis University, suggests we may even revert to the “atelier” model of learning where everyone’s work is visible and the master learner circulates around giving just-in-time feedback. The traditional and restrictive sit-at-a-desk standard office model, even cubicle style, limits interaction with colleagues and thereby prevents learning.

The key, as Wedaman proposes, is providing different kinds of workspaces for the different types of work we do. When you need to learn you go to your learning workplace. He also highlight that learning hinges on peers knowing what others are thinking and doing. An open office environment fosters making the thinking of team members visible through the display of their work.

It appears Stephen Covey’s famous mantra of starting with the end in mind may answer the dilemma of open office design. If we really want learning to happen on a regular, daily basis, we start with designing offices from learners’ needs in the first place. Being open minded to learning in different ways and in different places we can impact better-designed open plan offices of the future.

Question: Do your office spaces lend themselves to maximum learning opportunities?

Based on Training Magazine article Jan Feb 2016

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

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