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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.
As part of a project spearheaded by Senator Mike Lee, the US Congress’s Joint Economic Committee recently issued a report titled “What We Do Together” on “the state of associational life in America,” which points to several ways in which “the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations” has declined in recent decades. One of the report’s findings is that Americans are spending less time outside of work with their co-workers:
There is little data available on social interaction with coworkers, on or off the job. However, time use data indicate that we are spending less time with our coworkers off the job than in the past. Between the mid-1970s (1975-76) and 2012, the average amount of time Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 spent with their coworkers outside the workplace fell from about two-and-a-half hours per week to just under one hour.
This makes sense for many reasons, two of which center around the rise of the individual and the rise of uncertainty in modern life. Workers move around a lot more now. People shop around for what they want, change their minds, move away, and are in greater need of a support network unrelated to their jobs. In the past, many people who graduated and got a job expected to stay at that company for a long time (maybe forever), and even more people expected to at least stay in the same town.
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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.
As those of us who remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school know, social rejection is an effective, age-old method for enforcing a code of ethics, whether at home, in the workplace, or in society writ large. Unfortunately, as those of us who got picked on by the popular kids in high school also know, the world is an unjust place and the people who ought to be socially rejected often are not. In their recent research, management professors Rebecca L. Greenbaum and Matthew J. Quade explored how social rejection works—or doesn’t—in a workplace setting as a means of punishing unethical behavior. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they explain that employees “who engage in unethical conduct are more likely to be socially rejected by their peers”:
That is, unless the unethical employee in question has the reputation of being a high performer.