Research Digest

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

By 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