You can thank medieval monks for your getting stuck in a cubicle.
More recently, you can also blame Frank Lloyd Wright and the SC Johnson Co. for ushering in the era of the open office—which was hailed as the future of facilitating communication and collaboration and creating a more social environment.
Several studies have debunked many of those claims, however—and U.S. workers continue to hate the barrier-free trend.
Another modern corporate foible is the notion of boosting “connectivity” to improve workers’ productivity and communication. Cue the entrance of Salesforce, Microsoft Teams, Workplace, Slack and a million other chat platforms. Now, on top of email, social media, texting and the intranet, staffers can chat about anything, at any time, with any colleague.
Unfortunately, these “productivity tools” are often undermining what they promise. Often, they only add a layer of stuff to monitor. Also, these platforms can become conduits for office bullying and gossip.
Of course, open offices and “connectivity” aren’t inherently bad; we’ve just done a bad job of maximizing their usefulness. We’ve also done a poor job listening to what employees really want.
Here’s what the data says communicators should be striving for, whatever your workplace:
Provide the social benefits of an open workspace, but give employees privacy. Most workers just want a quiet space where they can concentrate. However, workplace friendships are perhaps the strongest indicator of engagement.
Instead of just dismantling cubicles or knocking down walls—and hoping that workers will just befriend each other due to proximity or familiarity—promote internal recognition. Provide venues, events and provisions that more naturally bring people together. Encourage collaboration, but don’t force it.
Try to provide the ancillary social benefits afforded by the open office environment, but prioritize employee privacy.
Consider offering fewer, more-focused channels. How many messages do your employees receive every day—and on how many platforms?
When it comes to connectivity and internal communication, less is typically more. Lower the volume, and shoot for brevity.
Try to accommodate workers’ preferences. Poll, survey and flat-out ask your staffers how they like to communicate and get work done. If they prefer a certain platform, tailor your approach accordingly. If your group hates the way meetings are conducted, switch it up (or scrap the meeting altogether).
If your workspace is driving employees crazy, reassemble the walls, if you must. A workplace without happy, engaged and focused workers is bound to fail, so do whatever it takes to reel them back in.
A version of this post first ran on MediaPost.