Industry and Business

Monday May 17, 2021

Office Layout - May 2021

Speaker: Adit Jain, IMA India

Open Platforms?

About 20 years ago, I called at the offices of GE Capital for a meeting with Pramod Bhasin who was then Chairman of the South Asia region. Previously, Pramod established the business in India and drove it to a premier position in the market place. As I entered the building, I was fascinated by the fact that it only contained workstations, with no individual cubicles for managers. Pramod himself had a desk in the main hall, amidst junior colleagues, with no extra frills, fancy fittings or expensive artwork. At that time, such an arrangement seemed odd. Traditional office designs were such that senior management were allocated independent rooms, often with a sofa and coffee table to receive visitors. Chief executives usually treated themselves to a corner cabin with large windows that provided a view of the outdoors. GE capital must have been one of the first companies in India to have an open seating plan that set egalitarian benchmarks. This design subsequently became fashionable with several companies embracing similar layouts.

Management consultants believe that this comes with some advantages. In the first instance, the absence of individual cubicles saves office space to the tune of 20-30%. This has clear cost benefits. Second, it provides a more equitable image amongst co-workers, when top management share their work environment and coffee machines. Third, and perhaps more importantly, senior executives and managers are easily approachable by junior team members and not tucked away in some remote upper floor. All of this is collectively said to enhance efficiency and build a team spirit within the organisation.

On a different note, at about the same time, I visited Homi Khusrokhan who had assumed responsibility as Managing Director of Glaxo India, a multinational pharmaceutical company. Homi was also a member of IMA's Board. During our conversation, he remarked that after he moved into the corner office, very few colleagues and friends dropped by for a chat or a coffee. He thought that was strange and really disappointing. Clearly, his executive assistants, perhaps with the best of intent, sheltered him from unnecessary intrusions. Those of us who know Homi, recognise how wonderfully decent and approachable he has always been, with an affable preference of engaging with people. It was the culture of executive suites that made top executives seem aloof.

Be that as it may, more recent research suggests that open plan settings that include senior executives are not really as effective as they may have previously seemed. The fact is, closed cubicles come with privacy, considered essential for senior level meetings. In any event, even open layouts require lots of closed meeting rooms and these are often blocked by top management. Therefore, it would seem logical that they should have their own cabins. Second, offices generally come with a lot of banter which disturbs concentration and focus. Workers are compelled to use headphones to prevent distraction. An office provides a platform for workers to engage socially, crack jokes and play the occasional prank to create a lively work environment. The presence of senior executives is inhibiting, leading to more sombre conditions. In the long term this can prove burdensome and in fact demoralising. Several companies have now realised that the old fashioned ways came with good reason and have consequently moved back to the old ways. We live, learn and unremittingly adapt. In the least, such things reduce monotony.