A recent study from Harvard University researchers challenges the accepted norm that open plan office design stimulates collaboration and communication. The study, which featured two Fortune 500 companies, found that employee engagement actually decreased, with a 70% drop in face to face communications, after their offices switched to completely open plan office designs.
Previous studies into the effects of office design on collaboration and communication have relied upon subjective interpretations, utilising surveys and activity logging, but in this new study Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban utilised wearable devices to measure an array of social interactions.
These ‘sociometric badges’ accurately tracked face-to-face interactions, recording actions such as talking, listening and spatial locations. Researchers were also, with permission, given access to review the level of email and instant messaging each of the volunteer participants sent and received.
The research was carried out both before and after each office had transitioned from a segmented, cubicle based workspace to a completely open plan setting, with roughly 40% of each office taking part.
Both studies bore similar results, with a marked decrease in face-to-face interactions - 72% in study one, and between 67-71% in study two. The study also found that there was an increase in electronic communications, with participants relying more on emails and instant messaging platforms.
Commenting on this the report says “In short rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from office mates and interact instead over email and IM.”
But whilst a shift in communication style is interesting, is it important?
As the researchers highlight: “transitions to open office architecture do not necessarily promote open interaction… when office architecture makes everyone more observable or ‘transparent’, it can dampen F2F interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate. Rather than have an F2F interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email.”
For office managers, what really matters is if this has an effect on productivity.
In the first study, an internal management review found that productivity had actually declined after the redesign, which is consistent with other research on the impact of a decline in media richness on productivity. This latest study is further evidence of the need for a variety of workplace environments in order to maximise on productivity.
Whilst open plan designs are great for certain activities, there is the need for private areas and smaller more controlled spaces for certain types of work, be it individual focused work or team based collaborations. To maximise on your potential, you must provide a variety of spaces for workers, each one suited to different tasks, available to all who need it.