Humans

We Just Got More Evidence Open Plan Offices Suck, According to Science

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For the first time, scientists have measured what actually happens with face-to-face interactions when employees start to work at an open-plan office – and their results show these modern workspaces are not as collaborative as you’d think.

 

Two researchers from Harvard Business School and Harvard University wanted to empirically test whether removing walls at a real-world workplace really does increase interactions between co-workers.

“To our knowledge, no prior study has directly measured the effect on actual interaction that results from removing spatial boundaries to create an open office environment,” Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban write in the paper.

To that end, they approached two multinational companies that were re-organising their office spaces at the global headquarters, and enlisted small groups of employees for two studies.

For eight weeks before the office redesign and eight weeks afterward, the researchers tracked employees’ social interactions using sociometric badges, and location using Bluetooth sensors.

This data was analysed together with email and instant messaging info from the company’s servers to measure differences in how people were communicating with each other.

What they found was a pretty staggering difference in face-to-face interactions – but not in the direction you might think.

Across both experiments, employees’ social interactions in person decreased by a crazy 70 percent, while emails saw an uptick by roughly 20 to 50 percent.

So, instead of spending more time “collaborating” with co-workers in the sprawling new space where everyone could see them, people got their heads down and tried to preserve their privacy any way they could (hello, huge headphones).

According to these results, it appears that being forced into a more open-plan environment can make people switch from chatting to others in person to sending an email or using instant messaging instead.

As the team notes, it’s not automatically a negative thing, but it can certainly change work dynamics in an unexpected way.

 

“That can have profound consequences for how – and how productively – work gets done,” the researchers conclude.

It’s really starting to look like this whole open plan shtick needs more investigation. According to the team, previous studies using surveys have shown that open plan offices can have some negative psychological effects, reducing employee satisfaction, focus, and their feelings of having privacy at work.

And don’t even get us started on hot-desking.

You know the pain if you’re one of those folks whose management once shook things up by taking away your desk and forcing you to scrounge for space in a “flexible workspace” area with weird lighting fixtures and oddly shaped furniture.

Studies have shown that people forced to share workspaces reported feeling marginalised, experienced more distractions, negative relationships and uncooperative behaviour, not to mention feeling like their supervisors were being less supportive.

“While these [shared workspace] environments can work well for some employees – those who are highly mobile and autonomous, for instance – the research shows that many employees do not work well in these environments,” organisational behaviour researcher Libby Sander wrote in The Conversation last year.

But since companies can save money on walls, doors, and general floor space by cramming us all together, we’re not sure if open plan trends are going away any time soon – so it could be worthwhile to hone your skills on how to minimise distractions at work.

The study has been published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

 





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