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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.
The most common critique of open offices is that they are noisy and distracting, and the absence of distractions is one major reason professionals give for preferring to work from home if they can. Yet many freelancers and remote employees also like to work out of crowded, noisy public spaces like coffee shops—so much so that the restaurant/coworking space is now a thing.
So why are we so eager to avoid the din of the office yet so comfortable with that of the cafe? The Telegraph’s Sarah Knapton pores over a new study that claims to have answered that question. The key difference seems to be in how much the background noise means to us; the researchers “found that productive work-related discussions are likely to be far more diverting than random, meaningless noises or overheard sounds of conversation between strangers”:
Dr Takahiro Tamesue, of the Yamaguchi University in Japan, said: “Surrounding conversations often disturb the business operations conducted in such open offices. Because it is difficult to soundproof an open office, a way to mask meaningful speech with some other sound would be of great benefit for achieving a comfortable sound environment.” …
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As technology has enabled more knowledge workers to work from anywhere, fewer of them need to be in the office every day. This sea change in the way people work has driven the rise of the coworking market, where vendors like WeWork are now even selling their flexible workplace solutions to large corporations. Back in March, Jeanne Sahadi at CNN Money spotted a rising trend of “hoteling,” in which employees don’t have individually assigned desks but have to reserve them each day they want to come into work (or in a “beach toweling” system, take them on a first-come, first-served basis), which saves employers money on expensive office space. Sahadi talked to an employee at EY about how the flexible desk system works there:
Maryella Gockel has worked at global consulting firm EY for 35 years. She said she hasn’t had a permanent office for the past decade. As a member of a global team, Gockel often works from home, in part because she has to be on early morning and late night calls with colleagues in different time zones. Of course, creatures of habit may not love the “work wherever” arrangement. …
If you work in the office at least three days a week, often you’re allowed to make a long-term reservation for the same space if you want, Gockel said. At EY, the only stipulation is that whenever you’re not there, you have to make that space available for someone else’s use.
In April, Denver Post writer Emilie Rusch toured the new Denver offices of commercial real estate firm CBRE, which also did away with assigned desks, even for senior employees, as part of the company’s “Workplace360” transformation:
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While the open office was devised as a way to make workplaces more social, creative, and collaborative, many professionals have already soured on the trend, which caught on relatively recently in the US. The promised increases in productivity, happiness, and collaboration haven’t shown up; in fact, some studies have found the opposite. Now opponents of the open office can add another arrow to their quiver of research disproving the theory. At the Conversation, business professor Rachel Morrison shares the findings of her and her colleagues’ research, which showed that employees who don’t have their own space tend to suffer for it:
Our research found that there were increases in “employee social liabilities” in shared working spaces: distractions, uncooperativeness, distrust, and negative relationships. More surprisingly, both coworker friendships and perceptions of supervisor support actually worsened. Although prior researchers have claimed shared work spaces can improve social support, communication, and cooperation, our results indicated that coworker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open-plan arrangements when compared to those with their own offices or who share offices with just one or two others. It is possible that these shared offices may increase employees’ use of coping strategies such as withdrawal and create a less friendly environment in a team.
One of the biggest downsides of the open office is that it lends itself to distraction: The lack of private, quiet places to work independently can be so detrimental to productivity as to outweigh whatever boost the open plan provides to employees’ creative and collaborative energies. For introverts, this borderless workspace is doubly detrimental, and it is with this in mind that the Economist makes the case for more peace and quiet in the office:
The biggest culprit is the fashion for open-plan offices and so-called “group work”. Companies rightly think that the elixir of growth in a world where computers can do much of the grunt work is innovation. But they wrongly conclude that the best way to encourage creativity is to knock down office walls and to hold incessant meetings. This is ill-judged for a number of reasons. It rests on a trite analogy between intellectual and physical barriers between people. It ignores the fact that noise and interruptions make it harder to concentrate. And companies too often forget that whereas extroverts gain energy from other people, introverts need time on their own to recharge. …
Open-plan offices have proven disappointing to many of us who have worked in them, not quite living up to their promise to automatically generate creativity, camaraderie, and collaboration. On the other hand, nobody really wants to go back to the cubicle days, so is there anything to be gained from the creative office design movement? Yes, writes Carson Tate at Fast Company, but it’s not the open office. Autonomy, she contends, is the real creativity booster:
If the most popular feature of the past generation in office design is a wash at best and a bust at worst, are we back to square one? If it isn’t more open space—let alone zany features like office slides—that measurably improves how people work, what actually does? It turns out the answer is simple, but possibly harder to design for: autonomy and control over your work environment.
Columbia University psychologists have found “evidence for a biological basis for the need for control and for choice—that is, the means by which we exercise control over the environment.” This, they say, is a built-in “imperative for survival” among our species. And according to researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, conditions that support an individual’s exercise of autonomy also enhance performance, persistence, and creativity.
The vaunted cauldrons of collaboration haven’t lived up to their hype, Laura Entis writes at Fortune:
Invented in 1950s Germany, the idea of creating a workspace free of dividing walls only took off in the U.S. within the last decade, spreading from tech startups to more established industries such as advertising, media and architecture. By tearing down literal barriers, the thought was that creativity and productivity would skyrocket. It didn’t exactly play out this way.
By now the backlash against the open office — which, by industry definition, includes spaces with cubicles since cubicle walls aren’t permanent, but by popular definition means a space without any high dividers — has reached fever pitch. The trend “is destroying the workplace,” declares a 2015 Washington Post headline, which labels the setup “oppressive.” A quick Google search surfaces hundreds of similar articles and testimonials, most published in the past couple years, which depict the open office synonymous with the spread of disease, ceaseless distractions and, according to a 2015 Bloomberg article, “being forced to listen to phone calls about the veterinary issues of your co-workers’ cats.”
The research is similarly damning. Evidence is mixed on whether open plans actually foster collaboration, and studies have shown that open office plans decrease productivity and employee well-being while increasing the number of sick days workers take.
“What went wrong?” Entis asks. “And, if an open plan isn’t the solution to the modern workplace, what comes next?”