Understanding the unwritten rules of the office

Dr Alison Hirst

Many of us work in open-plan offices and are all too familiar with the perils of hot-desking. To what extent can a building impact on the way employees interact? Can traditional hierarchies be changed?

“Can a way a building is designed actually cause people to work differently?” is the question that Dr Alison Hirst, Research Fellow at the Institute for International Management Practice (IIMP), has been looking into. “My initial research objective was to find out what effect a new office building, entirely open plan and constructed mainly from glass, could actually change the way people work. The building had been designed with the aims of encouraging greater interaction between employees, as well as making interpersonal dealings less hierarchical and more networked.

The theory was a space of open access, where anyone could go anywhere

Her focus has been on open-plan offices. How did people’s ways of working alter compared to when they worked in offices with a more conventional layout?”

Alison carried out the first phase of her ethnographic study during the final stages of the building’s construction and when the first wave of employees were making the building their new home. “Staff were moving out of what we might think of today as an old fashioned building – made up of separate rooms which held individual teams – to open plan offices, unrestricted by walls that segregated and divided.

“It was a big experiment that would test the CEO and architect’s new vision: one of an environment that challenged the organisation’s hierarchical structure. The theory was of as a space of open access, where anyone could go anywhere. This would encourage more networking and chance conversations that would spark new ideas and opportunities.

Alison discovered that despite the very fabric of the building becoming less restrictive, the unwritten rules of traditional office etiquette were very much alive. “As it turned out, the hierarchy was still very much relevant in this new building.”

For example, Alison wandered into an area that, according to the new philosophy, was open to all staff – the Councillors’ area. When she entered this area, she was swiftly ejected. As she explains: “The subtle rules of how to behave were very much present and there to be adopted and followed. The hierarchy that the architecture hoped to eradicate re-established itself anyway.”

There was an increase in networking and employees did become more productive, in part due to the feeling of being 'on show'

Open-plan offices also have an effect on personal identity. “I began to notice how much trouble I was taking over how I dressed, as you feel more on show,” said Alison. “Dress-code and self-presentation became more important and this was evidenced in my observations.”

The results of Alison’s research did tell a mixed story. There was an increase in networking and employees did become more productive, in part due to the feeling of being ‘on show’. However the hierarchical arrangement was rebuilt.

“It was an ambitious experiment coming to a new open-plan building for the first time. The building aimed to redesign patterns of interaction and action, making them more fluid. Part of the reason is to show its employees and the outside world that it is a modern, forward-thinking, ambitious place, open to new ideas. To a certain extent it did just that.”

Research matters

What inspired you?

Two things inspired me. The first was the managers I worked with who moved into the new building. Contrary to the media image of local authority managers as old-fashioned, bureaucratic and stuck in their ways, I found them to be some of the cleverest, most principled and most open to change people I have ever come across. The second source of inspiration was the theories about space that I was reading about. According to writers like Doreen Massey, space isn't just physical buildings and the air inside them, but it is social - it shapes our thoughts and our activities, and we shape it.

Any surprises?

I found it particularly interesting to observe how the sort of job workers did affected how they interacted with the new building. Some people were employed to be networkers – e.g., to set up projects that joined up services: health with social care, children’s services with education, for example. The new building was perfect for them. However, those with specialist jobs that needed to complete a task with great attention to detail in almost scholarly fashion, were hindered by the design. People found a way to compensate for the things that the building did not do anymore, such as creating their own walls within the space.

Why does this research matter?

The way buildings look today is very different to 50 years ago. It is important that managers commissioning new buildings, and architects designing them, can learn from this round of innovation in workspaces so they can design better ones in the future.  

Alison Hirst, Institute for International Management Practice (IIMP)

Dr Alison Hirst is a Research Fellow with a research interest in how material objects, including technological artefacts, contribute to organisational stability and change. She is also interested in space and materiality in organisations, public sector organisations and change, and using qualitative methods, including ethnography as a way of researching and writing about organisations.


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