Open-plan offices drive down face-to-face interactions and increase use of email

GettyImages-512979254.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

As well as their cost-saving appeal, the rationale for large open-plan offices is that they are expected to act as a crucible for human chemistry, increasing face-to-face encounters between colleagues to the benefit of creativity and collaboration. Unfortunately it’s well-established that most workers don’t like them, such is the fundamental human need for privacy and control over one’s environment. Now a pair of quasi-experimental field studies published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B suggest that the supposed collaborative advantage of open-plan offices also doesn’t pass muster.

Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, at Harvard Business School and Harvard University, respectively, recruited 52 employees at the global headquarters of a Fortune 500 multinational company that was about to undergo a redesign of an entire floor, stripping out the individual cubicles to create a fully open-plan workspace.

The participants, whose roles included sales, technology and human resources, wore a “sociometric badge” and microphone for three weeks prior to the redesign. Then a couple of months after the office refit, they wore the badge and microphone again for another three weeks.

The bluetooth-enabled electronic badges and the microphones allowed the researchers to monitor the frequency of the employees’ face-to-face interactions. The company also granted access to their servers so the researchers could look for any changes in use of email and instant messenger.

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

A second study involving 100 employees at another Fortune 500 company was similar but this time the researchers monitored changes to the nature of the interactions between specific pairs of colleagues before the shift to an open-plan office compared with afterwards.

There were 1830 interacting dyads and, of these, 643 reduced their amount of face-to-face interaction after the workspace became open-plan, compared with just 141 showing more physical interaction. Overall, face-to-face time decreased by around 70 per cent across the participating employees, on average, with email use increasing by between 22 per cent and 50 per cent (depending on the estimation method used).

If you’ve ever sought refuge from the gold-fish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you’ve decided you’d rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers, and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise.

However, while a great deal of research has established employees’ negative feelings about open-plan offices, both in terms of lost privacy and adverse effects on communication, this is the first study to provide an objective measure of the impact of an open-plan space on how people interact.

The real-life setting of this research is a major advantage but it does of course come at the expense of full experimental control and it remains a possibility that other factors, besides the office design change, may explain the results. The researchers did attempt to mitigate this possibility, such as by allowing time for the employees to settle into the new office design before resuming data collection.

“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,” the researchers said. “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.”

The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

23 thoughts on “Open-plan offices drive down face-to-face interactions and increase use of email”

  1. I wonder if there are US vs UK aspects to consider on this one – I feel like “cubicle culture” is more prevalent in the US?

    In Britain, I’ve never worked in an office that WASN’T principally open-plan, and I can’t really bring to mind any examples of cubicles or ‘privacy’ in modern British office culture, whether thinking of friends, family or from tv etc…

    If that is indeed the case, you have to wonder if we’ve “adapted” more here, or if we’re stuck with the kinds of issues the researchers found and just don’t realise it.

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    1. I’ve certainly worked in private offices in both the UK and US. The preference for cheaper accommodation in the UK is likely due to the greater cost of office space in the UK, especially London.

      In practice, US companies that move from private offices to cubicles to open-plan offices have, in my experience, then moved rapidly on to teleworking, which is also easier in the US because of the better IT infrastructure. That drops ‘face time’ to nearly zero, suggesting that employers rate its value as minimal or actually negative. Open-plan is good enough only for low-value work such as call centers, where employees nevertheless require close supervision.

      It will be interesting to see if the excision of EU bureaucracy in the UK next year changes employment conditions in the UK.

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      1. Facetime may be near zero, but that doesn’t mean relationships can’t be formed. I worked remotely for 7 years and then in an office for the past 3 years. While I had more face-to face interactions in the office, I actually formed as many long lasting relationships while working remotely. That suggests to me that a lot of time is being wasted with small talk around the water cooler in the office setting. Remote work is more efficient and doesn’t affect teamwork IMHO.

        Another aspect not being taken into account is that basically 50% of people are Introverts. Introverts need space, quiet, and alone time to recharge. If you force them into a public group dynamic you will not be getting the best from them. They will be more irritable, less efficient, and more prone to burn-out. In this age of catering to every special interest group on the planet I find it odd that companies don’t take Introversion into account when they make decisions like open plan workspaces.

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  3. I have spent the last 10 years providing Agile Transformation consulting to organizations globally and I have seen phenomenal success with open seating plans WHEN you are building cross-functional, self-organizing, persistent and dedicated teams who work together to achieve synergistic success. In those kind of teams, they typically don’t just an “open plan” they use a “team space”. In this space they learn to depend on one another and find value in that interaction. Therefore (for the most part), most enjoy being in open spaces together.

    It is true that people (some more than others) need some private space, but that can be achieved in many ways these days (working from home, casual seating areas, cafeteria seating, leaving the campus, or the use of “war-rooms” where 2-3 people can fit in a small room and close the door).

    I’ve found it depends a lot of culture. My experience in the UK is that there is a lot of “open seating”, without the teaming and shared vision aspects and I can see how some people may not thrive in that environment. Americans are also typically more used to high walled “cube farms” and many like their private space – but I’ve also found them to be pretty adaptive overall. “Hot weather cultures” (as they are commonly referred to – India, China, etc) are generally more community focused and used to greater numbers of people being together, so open seating seems less of a challenge.

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    1. It has been my experience as well that “team spaces” or “project spaces” increase collaboration several times over when working on a collaborative project, and that is the feature of “open plans” most overlooked by managers after the open plan in implemented.

      I like to reason along the lines of teams building things that are too large to move down an assembly line.

      The production space is necessarily open, and because the projects themselves are physically located, those working on it together huddle around it and work collaboratively out of necessity.

      If instead, workers are randomly sprinkled around the work area, wherever the manager sees room rather than in the project space of what they’re working on, then any benefit of increased collaboration is obviously immediately erased (yet for some reason, most managers still randomly sprinkle employees around the manager’s area, usually seating employees where they can “keep an eye on them” rather than where they can collaborate best).

      And finally, regarding any role that is not project-building related, where a significant portion of the work is one-on-one conversations (e.g. managers, sales, etc.), I don’t understand how an open-office plan was ever supposed to help in those roles, and never expected it would be applied to them.
      What collaboration of theirs is it supposed to improve? I certainly don’t understand…

      All this study seems to prove its that misapplication of a pattern does not bring about its purported benefits… of course!

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