Open-plan offices have a surprising effect on workplace communication

More intelligent.
More intelligent.
Image: Reuters/Peter Power
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A new before-and-after study led by a Harvard Business School professor might bolster the already strong case against the open office plan.

Unlike previous research, it uses empirical evidence rather self-reported data to show that airy, communal spaces do not a buzzing, collaborative environment make.

Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor of organizational behavior, built the research around a real-life renovation at the headquarters of an unnamed Fortune 500 company engaged in a “so-called war on walls.”  He had employees wear people analytics badges that track (but do not record) conversations through anonymized sensors, which gave the professor and his co-author data they could compare against changes in online communication. (To minimize the effects of outside factors, their research took snapshots of two three-week periods that fell at that same point in different business quarters, one before walls were banished, and one after.)

In two studies, the researchers found that conversations by email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly after the office redesign, while productivity declined, and, for most people, face-to-face interaction decreased. Participants in the first study spent 72% less time interacting in person in the open space. Before the renovation, employees had met face to face for nearly 5.8 hours per person over three weeks. In the after picture, the same people held face-to-face conversations for only about 1.7 hours per person.

These employees were emailing and IM-ing much more often, however, sending 56% more email messages to other participants in the study. This is how employees sought the privacy that their cubicle walls once provided, the authors reason. IM messages soared, both in terms of messages sent and total word count, by 67%  and 75%, respectively.

The second study compared dyads, or conversational partners, among 100 employees on the same floor of the building. It found that people who sat near each other spoke more to those in their pod of six or eight desks when they were no longer in cubicles. Overall, however, face to face exchanges decreased.

Humans are not like insects

The authors call the social withdraw they captured in data a “natural human response” triggered by a change in environment, but they acknowledge their findings contradict an established theory about collective intelligence. When forced to share space, humans behave much like swarms of insects. This has appeared to be true in a range of contexts, the authors note, citing studies involving the US Congress, college dormitories, co-working spaces, and corporate buildings.

However, as far as we’re aware, hornets and wasps are not as psychologically and socially complex as people. For instance, they do not regularly switch between their front-stage self and back-stage self, managing the impression they’re making, per a longstanding theory about humans.

People are better at rote tasks, rather than creative ones, when we feel we’re on display, and part of our mind is therefore preoccupied by social pressures, Harvard’s Bernstein has suggested. Knowing that others are watching us limits the degree to which we might creatively solve a problem, and therefore be more productive, according to a study he conducted with factory workers. “Do I look busy?” becomes more important than “Am I doing my best work?”

Importantly, the new study also found that when spatial boundaries disappeared, employees didn’t simply take their usual in-person exchanges online. Rather, they began emailing more with some people and communicating less with others. In other words, an open office can reconfigure employee networks, which obviously can change the way teams work.

Social media versus social offices

Bernstein believes the new study reinforces an existing argument that says intermittent social interactions, rather than constant ones, optimize our ability to work out complex problems. Spatial boundaries, he writes, help people “make sense of their environment by modularizing it, clarifying who is watching and who is not, who has information and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who controls what and who does not, to whom one answers and to whom one does not.”

Keeping an eye on all of these things in a sprawling, open space can lead to overload, distraction, and poorer decisions.

It’s perhaps a bit strange we haven’t adapted better to this, in an age that has many of us openly sharing vast portions of our lives on social media. But as Bernstein once told workplace strategy consultant Leigh Stringer, in an interview on her website, “We want people to follow us online, but not necessarily motion-by-motion in the office.”