By Ethan Bernstein
The concept is as simple as it is alluring. By making sure employees conduct their work in plain view—visible in open offices, monitored with sensing technology and tracked through digital activity—companies hope to increase accountability, collaboration, knowledge sharing and innovation.
It’s hard to argue against that.
Until, that is, we take a closer look. Transparency, in theory, is a marvel. But in practice, according to both my research and other studies, it’s a different story. Too often, the same openness that at times can increase accountability, collaboration, knowledge sharing, innovation and productivity can also undermine it.
The problem, I believe, is the conviction that when it comes to transparency, “more is better.” But more transparency isn’t necessarily better. Rather, smarter transparency is better. If leaders can adopt a transparency strategy that strikes a balance between openness and privacy, that tears some walls down while leaving others in place, they are more likely to get the results they want.
How can companies achieve that balance? My research leads me to three principles they should follow.
1. Open, but Not-So-Open, Offices
Throw people together with few barriers, and they are more likely to share ideas and work together. That’s the theory behind open offices and factory floors. The hope is that random collisions will lead to greater innovation and productivity.
It’s all true, but only up to a point. All these real-life collisions also can lead to a lot of real-life distractions.
Consider one global company I studied that transformed its headquarters from traditional to open offices, measuring face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the redesign. After the redesign, interactions between individuals who weren’t on the same team jumped more than 50%. Sounds good, right? Except that interactions between individuals who had to work together to get things done fell by almost an equivalent amount, and the total amount of interactions actually fell.
In other words, the beauty of open architecture—that interactions are more effortless and less planned—can also be the cost. The company failed to account for the fact that we all have a limited amount of time and attention, and the new space refocused attention away from the conversations through which work had to get done.