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New Year, New Perspective on Work Space

Balancing freedom and fishbowls for optimal layouts

Restaurants can be friendly and rowdy. That type of ambiance may be entertaining for eating, but what about when you’re working?

Loud talking, space hogging and concentration breaking are all issues that countless people have experienced in open-plan offices. Whether it’s a cube farm or an open space, such desk configurations are meant to encourage collaboration and increase in-person interactions — not to mention reduce real-estate costs.

The reality is that the results are mixed. Instead of inducing teamwork, open spaces and cube environments sometimes impede it.

Last summer, a study co-authored by a Harvard Business School professor made nationwide headlines after showing that open-plan office noise causes people to put on headphones and tune out, work from home, and choose email over desk-side chats to avoid feeling they’re in a fishbowl.

On the flip side, there are positives.

What’s the best arrangement for your dealership or office? You can decide after considering the three F’s: fishbowl, focus, and freedom.


In an open setting, everyone can see and hear everything. It’s really not my thing; like a flustered fly on the wall, most of us don’t want to know the private details of others’ lives.

The Harvard study noted a “natural human desire for privacy, and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it.” Workers may create physical barriers, say, by using a rolling whiteboard as a wall, or by covering clear-view dividers with posters to lessen the sense of being on display.

On the other hand, when everyone can see everything, communal action can happen. I have seen teams engage in collaborative competition by decorating their areas based on a concept or holiday. One group hung a “Welcome to Cube Canyon” sign and jazzed up the place with a tiki bar and tropical island theme. It looked terrific, and the festive feeling inspired upbeat conversation.

Another positive aspect of the the fishbowl effect is enjoying meals as a group by scheduling potlucks or office socials.

Managing the fishbowl effect with a playful perspective is absolutely essential if it’s going to work. I’m certain you can think of multiple approaches that provide appropriate diversions while contributing to improved productivity and crew engagement.


What do you do about random, ongoing distractions? Tuning out chatter with earbuds may help some people, while others tend to “homestead” in a meeting room or the office of an absent associate.

In some instances, employees may find focus by taking the open concept into other open spaces: namely, their homes. Yes, working at home can be liberating and productive, but in ongoing doses it can also be isolating, and can push people more toward communicating by technology than in person. The Harvard study showed that employees in open-plan scenarios spent less time in face-to-face encounters while email rose 67 percent and instant messaging went up 75 percent.

One way to help maintain focus is being willing to ask colleagues for input. In an open environment, it’s amazingly quick and easy to query a teammate for ideas and shortcuts. In addition, a “get ’er done” camaraderie contributes to enhanced morale.


A scarcity of solitude, along with an inability to focus, may leave an employee feeling a lack of freedom and control. When our sense of autonomy is deficient, an undercurrent of frustration can form.

What’s the flip side here? The open model also can stimulate a sense of office family and “we’ve got one another’s back.” Overhearing a conversation where an associate mentions a problem, and being able to jump in and offer a solution, is a benefit. So is learning as you overhear others knock out obstacles. Everyone has the opportunity to gain knowledge and contribute to the good of the group.

In the marine industry, dealerships, manufacturing facilities and offices have varying amounts of flexibility when making efficiency trade-offs for allocating space. The ability to achieve a sense of discretion, eliminate the fishbowl effect and enable focus and productivity are all part of providing a semblance of freedom, managerial control and employee satisfaction.

Mary Elston

Mary Elston

An open plan may be the right setup for your office, but the reality depends on your business needs. Observe and gather input from workers. Then test, debug and test again. All the while, remember to look at the flip side of the space equation while incorporating fun and function.

You’ll likely gain a fresh perspective and find the option that’s best for you and your team.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue.



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