‘Where do I belong?’ An open-plan office conundrum.

A recent study concluded that open-plan offices do the opposite of their intended aim. Instead of fostering creativity, they stifle creativity. Instead of facilitating face-to-face communication, they inspire emails and gossip. And perhaps worst, in the case of the hot-desk open office, rather than foster collaboration, the cool kids get the seats by the window and the outcasts get stuck between the tea point and the toilets.

At the heart of all this is the simple need to feel as though you belong somewhere. I mean this both physically and socially.

In the physical case, there’s a comfort in knowing this is your spot in the room. Maybe there’s a slightly better spot over by Bob’s window seat, but this’ll do and it’s a place to call your own.

Certainty facilitates efficiency; hot-desking and open-plan offices reduce certainty. Will I get a good desk today? Can I make a private call? Who’s looking over my shoulder? These are unnecessary stresses that affect employees’ productivity and sense of value.

In the social case, consider how the person who doesn’t get to sit with the cool kids feels — and let’s face it, like every high school lunch room, there are always cool kids. Those left out of the popular group might feel as though they don’t belong. This is a physical metaphor of how they start to feel about their role in an organisation, and this creates a need for leaders to take interventive measures — a burden that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even if the motivation of an open-plan office setup was to demonstrate a trust in people to sort themselves, the effect has been to make people feel leaderless. Rather than empowered, they feel helpless; rather than led, they feel ignored. These feelings are the enemies of belonging, and they are to be avoided.

Similar to how university students crave the certainty of a marking rubric, employees crave a certain identity within an organisation, and the certainty that leaders recognise who they are as individuals. One way to achieve this is to communicate clearly both where employees belong in the physical office, and how they fit into the organisation’s overall operations. Unsurprisingly, the physical layout of an office space is no substitute for good communication and strong leadership.

Once you work that out, everything else sorts itself.