In a paper published last week, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein and co-author Stephen Turban set out to measure the impact of open offices on how employees communicate in the workplace, using sociometric devices to track employee interactions at Fortune 500 companies that were transitioning to open office plans. Quartz’s Lila MacLellan explains their counterintuitive findings:
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.
Bernstein’s paper adds to the growing body of research questioning the value of open-plan offices, which came into vogue in the US over the past decade as part of an effort to make the office environment more interactive and collaborative. Critiques of the practice usually focus on the distractions and lack of privacy an open office provides; the proliferation of open offices in the US has even been suggested as a possible factor contributing to the spread of the flu virus in American workplaces during winter.
Other research, like Bernstein’s, has found that open offices don’t improve employee communication as advertised, and can even have the opposite effect. A major study in Australia in 2016, for example, found that workers in open offices form poorer relationships with their colleagues and managers, making fewer friends at work and seeing their supervisors less supportive.
Auckland University of Technology business professor Rachel Morrison, the author of that study, recently came out with some new findings from a qualitative study at a law firm transitioning to an open-plan office. In this follow-up research, Morrison also found a troubling gender dynamic in employees’ experience of the open office, with many women saying they felt stressed, watched, or judged in that environment (no men reported feeling the same).
One of the companies Bernstein and Turban studied reported lower productivity after transitioning to an open office. Their study doesn’t prove that open offices always harm productivity, as digital communications are not necessarily less effective means of getting work done than face-to-face interactions. However, BloombergView columnist Leonid Bershidsky argues, if open offices aren’t doing the very thing they are designed to do, employers should consider whether an open office is better than, say, working from home:
Freelancers and small company founders should be mindful of this effect when they trade their home offices for WeWork subscriptions. In a WeWork office, one gets 60 to 80 square feet of space, compared with the U.S. corporate standard of about 200 square feet. Though some can use the proximity and the ingeniously designed common areas for networking, many could end up putting less effort into work while still communicating electronically rather than face-to-face. Recent research shows work effort to be higher at home than in any office environment. Even if a full-time telecommuter gets a little claustrophobic and begins to neglect personal care these can be reasonable sacrifices to make for higher engagement and productivity, not to mention the benefits of eliminating the commute to work.