Transparency has become the watchword of a new business order. Its philosophies back the rise of the open office plan and breathe new collaborative life into otherwise staunch management policies, while the word itself becomes synonymous with openness, creativity, and accountability in business. Office structures that prioritize transparency are always more productive than those that don’t- or at least, everyone in management seems to think so.
Recent research isn’t quite so confident. Several studies led by Harvard professor and researcher Ethan Bernstein over the past few years have found that without some allowances for employee privacy, purely transparent office models can, in fact, be detrimental to employee productivity.
This seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t an office worker be less likely to check their Twitter feed if they knew that the person one seat down could see them slacking? Yes — but the same awareness that helps keep employees on-track during the workday has the potential to sour into unproductive paranoia under certain circumstances.
Let’s consider an example. Imagine that you’re sitting alone at a cafe booth, writing a run-of-the-mill letter to your sister about a recent vacation you took. Other diners and servers bustle around you, but the seats and table afford enough of an open buffer that you can tuck the finished letter into an envelope and seal it within fifteen minutes. Now, imagine that you’re taking on that same task — but this time, at an exposed table right next to the cashier line. Waiting customers bump your chair and look down at you with your letter; their disinterested glances make you want to cover the paper with a cupped hand and hunch a little further over. You try to remember exactly what you planned to say in the next sentence and eke another few words out. Thirty minutes later, you stuff the half-written letter into your pocket and decide to finish it later — maybe when you’re alone at home.
There are a few points to unpack here. Firstly, a casual letter like the one mentioned above probably wouldn’t contain any vital personal information or sensitive data. Secondly, those shifting to the counter wouldn’t have more than a moment to glance down at the paper — and likely wouldn’t care enough to remember what it said, anyway. Thirdly, neither of the above points matter to you, the letter-writer. Whether in the office, a cafe, or out on the street, we as people have a sensitivity towards being watched — and unlike the writer above, most office workers can’t pack up their work and go home when they feel uncomfortable. Transparency might help us refrain us from playing on social media during the workday or increase our working speed, but it also opens the door to other, less productive side effects.
The first and foremost of these is a tendency towards secrecy. Researcher Ethan Bernstein said, “Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide. If executives pick up on signs of covert activity, they instinctively start to monitor employee behavior even more intensely.”
In other words, the cycle of watchfulness, anxiety, and unproductivity continues on an ever-intensifying loop between employee and manager until the problem is addressed. Without some structures for privacy in place, the employee doesn’t have an avenue to alleviate their feelings of vulnerability, and their productivity understandably falls.
Now, if it sounds as though I’m championing the end to the open office plan and a return to the much-hated cubicle structure — I’m not. Transparent management models have a host of benefits for companies and employees alike, including improving working relationships, developing greater engagement, increasing productivity, and building trust between employees and management. However, companies need to make sure that these new office models strike a balance between transparency and privacy, or else risk losing productivity. According to Bernstein, that balance isn’t necessarily hard to find – but companies must establish the four different types of boundaries outlined below if they intend to maintain it successfully.
Visibility and Security
No one performs well in a fishbowl. As explained in the scenario described above, people rarely feel comfortable having their work put out in the open, regardless of whether anyone is assessing their performance. Companies should establish team boundaries to limit the “audience” their employees perceive on a daily basis. Even a small gesture towards separation can have a positive impact; during Bernstein’s research into productivity at a Chinese mobile phone factory, he found that a simple separating curtain could boost assembly line productivity by as much as 15%. Limited – and distinct – group structures like these allow for collaboration, camaraderies, supervision, and support without sacrificing a worker’s sense of security and privacy.
Evaluation and Feedback
While both evaluations and feedback sessions are fundamentally judgemental, employees engage with the two different. Even the best-run evaluations are intimidating; an employee can feel as though their performance, worth, and even job security hangs on the conversation going well. Feedback, on the other hand, is more casual. Workers can receive constructive criticism and compliments without worrying that they will face criticism for a few missteps.
The boundary between these two cannot be hazy. If an employee constantly feels that he’s under evaluation, he’ll be anxious and shy away from bringing questions and concerns to his supervisor. By creating a firm distinction between formal evaluation and feedback, management can promote a more trusting, relaxed, and collaborative culture in the office overall.
Compliance and Creativity
A company’s best products usually have roots in employee innovation. Take Google’s portfolio as an example – Gmail and Google Maps were both developed by interested engineers working outside of their official to-do lists. Google asks its employees to allocate 20% of their time to working on projects that interest them, rather than on those they are assigned. Managers don’t track this time, but the employees are engaged and interested enough in self-directed work that they can organize teams and work independently to get the job done.
To follow Google’s example — and success — companies need to allow for some slack between strict compliance and creativity. Staying within tried-and-true company policies and tasks is useful in its way, but too much structure can wither creativity just as easily as too little can tank productivity.
Free and Limited Time
No one does well working with unlimited time. There always seems to be an excuse to procrastinate or circumvent; smaller tasks can eat away at the workday until — surprise! — no time is left to work on an independent project. Companies who permit flexibility and encourage creativity need to give their employees some structure if they want to optimize productivity. Google, as mentioned above, establishes a generous 20% limit — but make no mistake, it is a limit. Workers need to have a hard deadline so that they can make the most of the time they do have, rather than while forever away on small tasks.
Most importantly, though, a transparent business needs to have engaged employees. Companies can provide supportive team structures, establish positive feedback channels, and launch free-thinking innovation periods until the workday bell rings, but that hard work will come to nothing if the employees don’t want to contribute beyond what they need to. Transparency can boost productivity, build trust, and better relationships — but establishing a transparent model is only one step. In the end, companies and managers alike have to adopt a human-centric business mindset; if we give employees the privacy, motivation, and support they need to be productive as workers and individuals, they will deliver the innovation companies need to thrive.