Breaking silos

November 25, 2016

The corner office is a universal symbol of power. Managers across the world aspire to have an enclosed room of their own, with a large desk, high-back chair, an entourage of support staff seated outside, and ideally, a great view.

It is thus unsurprising that the majority of CEOs, whom I regularly interview for my ongoing series, Head Office, in the Mint newspaper, operates from this traditional work environment. During the course of the Head Office series, I profiled more than 50 CEOs and their workspaces, and explored the connections between their workspaces and work styles. These stories and observations have been compiled into a book, Working Out of the Box: 40 stories of leading CEOs.


working out of the box

Although most CEOs enjoy the seclusion of their C-suites, my research threw up an unexpected trend: a significant minority is experimenting with shedding their cabins, and stepping out to work in the open, often seated amongst their junior colleagues.

For example, Rajan Anandan, Managing Director and Vice President, Sales and Operations of Google South Asia and India, sits (or rather stands) at a height-adjustable desk, which allows him to stand and work, alongside his colleagues. When he needs privacy, he moves to a small meeting room near his desk. “I wouldn’t trade this for a million because of the pulse of the place. I can see all my leaders; I can see my younger colleagues. The person next to me is twenty-four years old. If I want the pulse of the place, I just ask how it’s going,” he says.

Creating a democratic, collaborative, open and thus more productive, work environment are primary concerns for bosses who choose to work out in the open. As Shantanu Khosla, former Managing Director of the Indian arm of consumer goods multinational Procter and Gamble, remarked, “if you were to walk around our office, you couldn’t tell who was vice-president, or who was a secretary.” During his tenure as CEO, Khosla sat on a 6×6-foot open-plan workstation, surrounded by co-workers and a product showcase that displayed diapers.

For some CEOs, working outside a C-suite requires some initial adjustment. Roopa Kudva, Managing Director of Omidyar Network India Advisors, Indian arm of the Silicon Valley-headquartered impact investors, moved into an open-plan office, after having occupied a cabin for over a decade, having previously served as Managing Director of Crisil, a large, homegrown financial analytics company with several thousand employees.

“To be very candid, when I decided to join Omidyar Network in 2015, I was apprehensive. It was the little things that I wasn’t so sure about, like the office. If you are used to sitting in a large office all by yourself, with a whole army of support staff outside just helping you with your day-to-day stuff, simple things like your (PowerPoint) decks and your research for your speeches, you’re not sure how you would be able to cope with those changes,” admits Kudva, adding that “but being out in the open, as opposed to being locked away in a room somewhere else, has helped in the transition, because it’s got me so close to where actual work happens that I couldn’t have learnt faster any other way.”

The non-existent C-suites of Google, P&G, and Omidyar represent an emerging trend in workplace design. Several other companies from varied sectors, including pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline in Gurgaon, real estate consultant Jones Lang LaSalle in Mumbai, and e-commerce company Myntra in Bangalore have plucked senior management from their cabins in a bid to flatten out hierarchy and increase communication and productivity.


the privacy-communication trade-off

Like any experimental trend, however, the open-plan office movement has its critics. Although alignment, collaboration, and getting employees to work together are basic premises underlying contemporary open-plan workplace design, a growing body of research points out that open-plan offices can be unproductive for employees due to noise, distractions, constant interruptions, and lack of privacy.

For example, Dr. Jungsoo Kim from the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney decided to study the privacy-communication trade-off more deeply, by examining data on office buildings collected by the Center for Built Environment, Berkeley. This data surveyed over 40,000 employees in 303 office buildings across the US and included questions about satisfaction with the amount of space for individual storage, the amount of visual privacy and ease of interactions with colleagues, noise levels, and overall satisfaction with the personal space within the office.

The results were published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013. As the report summarizes, “enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ [Indoor Environmental Quality], particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”


the science behind privacy and transparency

These observations, on the perils of open-plan offices, are validated by neuroscience research into how we work. In Balancing we and me, an article in the October 2014 edition of Harvard Business Review, researchers from Steelcase, one of the world’s largest office furniture companies, outline the link between workspaces and neuroscience.

Neuroscience research identifies three basic modes of attention, they write. First, controlled attention, or working on a task that requires intense focus. Second, stimulus-driven attention–switching focus when something catches our attention, for example, interruptions when doing routine tasks. Finally, rejuvenation, or periodic respites from concentration during the day. “The challenge is to find the right balance of social and private [space] and to provide spaces that enhance all modes,” they conclude.

Private offices such as C-suites allow occupants to easily switch between the three modes of attention, as their design facilitates both individual and interactive work. More importantly, an enclosed space allows occupants to control the amount of incoming stimulation (noise or distraction), when they are moving from one mode to another mode; being able to simply shut the door if it is too noisy outside, for example.


creating multiple spaces to meet and think

A private workspace for each employee is clearly an unaffordable Utopia, so productivity-minded companies are creating the next best option: providing a variety of different work-settings where employees can work, think or talk, on their own or in groups. Still too early to conclude the impact on productivity, these measures deserve applause for attempting to address the privacy-communication trade-off.

For example, ‘phone booths,’ small booths where one or two people can make private phone calls, are an increasingly common phenomenon in office plans. Many companies now provide many meeting rooms to accommodate teams of different compositions. In some companies, quiet rooms can be booked when individuals need some thinking space. Some employers, such as consumer products multinational Unilever, have begun to install ‘quiet’ zones in offices: a dedicated set of workstations where employees can check in for a specified period, to work without speaking, almost like desks in a college library.

And finally, as many experts recommend, there is always self-discipline: open-plan office workers should consider switching off communication devices during thinking times at work, as they are the biggest sources of distraction, and reduced productivity.