Open Offices Actually Drive Workers To Retreat From One Another

Notice how they are all ignoring each other? Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Open office plans are often adopted with the noble intention of increasing collaboration, communication, and fostering team friendships, yet study after study suggests that workers simply don’t like this type of environment. 

And now, a study by researchers at the Harvard Business School adds further evidence to the value of walls (to hide behind) after finding that employees at two large Fortune 500 companies actually engaged in less face-to-face contact after switching to entirely open workspaces. 

As described in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban sought to conduct a real-world comparison of people’s behavior in different types of offices after a good number of theoretical investigations had concluded that open layouts reduce communication. 

For their two-part examination, they first recruited 52 employee volunteers from an organization, given the pseudonym OpenCo1, and asked them to wear a device known as a sociometric badge every working day for three weeks before the workspace remodel, then every working day for three weeks after the transition about three months later. The sociometric badge captures when wearers are face-to-face with others (using an infrared sensor that registers contact with other sensors), if a wearer is talking or listening to another using a microphone, and captures spatial location and movement/posture using a Bluetooth sensor and accelerometer, respectively. Data was gathered in 10-millisecond intervals. 

An image of the sociometric badge worn by participants. Bernstein, E.S. and Turban, S./The Royal Society Publishing, 2018

To quantify communication not occurring in person, the participants gave permission for the researchers to review the number of emails and instant messages (IMs) sent during those periods.

The second part of the study was a similar assessment of 100 employees at "OpenCo2", yet these subjects were followed for eight weeks before and after open-plan renovations.

In both field studies, the data revealed that face-to-face interaction dropped substantially after the switch to un-walled workstations. 

“Contrary to common belief,” the authors wrote, “the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.” 

Though the desire to avoid "silos" and bring employees together is a key goal of many employers, Bernstein and Turban conclude that an open office design may not be the means to achieve it.

“While it is possible to bring chemical substances together under specific conditions of temperature and pressure to form the desired compound, more factors seem to be at work in achieving a similar effect with humans. Until we understand those factors, we may be surprised to find a reduction in [face-to-face] collaboration at work even as we architect transparent, open spaces intended to increase it.”

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