The Uncomfortable Truth About Open-Plan Offices

While try­ing to do con­cen­trat­ed work amidst col­leagues on the phone or in dis­cus­sions, I reg­u­lar­ly wish to return to the qui­et library from my stu­dent days. With all due respect to col­lab­o­ra­tion and team­work, but there are times when peo­ple need to think and work alone and qui­et­ly. Until now I attrib­uted my inabil­i­ty to work effec­tive­ly in open-plan offices to my more intro­vert­ed nature, but now it is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly con­firmed that the con­cept of open-plan offices is fun­da­men­tal­ly flawed. Stud­ies by Ethan Bern­stein of Har­vard Busi­ness School and Stephen Tur­ban of Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty clear­ly show that, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, open-plan offices do not pro­mote, but rather impede face-to-face encoun­ters between col­leagues. So it’s not (only) me.

Open-Plan Offices Impede Face-To-Face Interactions and Increase the Use of E‑Mail

The ratio­nale was so con­vinc­ing­ly sim­ple: the clos­er and more open peo­ple sit togeth­er in the office, the bet­ter the team­work. Instead of pick­ing up the phone or writ­ing an e‑mail, the mat­ter can be clar­i­fied much eas­i­er and bet­ter hav­ing a short con­ver­sa­tion at a col­league’s desk in the same open-plan office. So much for the the­o­ry that con­tin­ues to serve as the basis for design­ing office land­scapes. A seri­ous mis­take, as the stud­ies by Ethan Bern­stein and Stephen Tur­ban recent­ly showed.

For every com­plex prob­lem there is an answer that is clear, sim­ple, and wrong.
H. L. Mencken

In their first study, the two researchers accom­pa­nied the con­ver­sion of an entire floor of a For­tune 500 com­pa­ny from indi­vid­ual cubi­cles to an open-plan office. They record­ed the time spent in face-to-face inter­ac­tions between col­leagues before and after the redesign and noticed a decline of a stag­ger­ing 73%. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion did not stop, how­ev­er, but had shift­ed. The use of email increased by 67% and that of instant mes­sag­ing by 75%.

If you’ve ever sought refuge from the gold-fish bowl of an open-plan office envi­ron­ment by cocoon­ing your­self with head­phones, or if you’ve decid­ed you’d rather not have that chal­leng­ing con­ver­sa­tion with a col­league in front of a large group of your peers, and opt­ed to email them instead, then these find­ings will come as lit­tle surprise.
Chris­t­ian Jar­rett in Open-plan offices dri­ve down face-to-face inter­ac­tions and increase use of email

The sec­ond study at anoth­er For­tune 500 com­pa­ny was sim­i­lar, but focused on pairs of col­leagues inter­act­ing with each oth­er. The 100 employ­ees in this study formed 1830 such “dyads”, of which 643 actu­al­ly reduced their face-to-face inter­ac­tions and only 141 increased them after mov­ing to an open-plan office. Over­all, face-to-face inter­ac­tions decreased by 70% due to the open office design and the use of e‑mail increased by between 22% and 50% (depend­ing on the esti­ma­tion method). The two researchers came there­fore to the right conclusion:

While it is pos­si­ble to bring chem­i­cal sub­stances togeth­er under spe­cif­ic con­di­tions of tem­per­a­ture and pres­sure to form the desired com­pound, more fac­tors seem to be at work in achiev­ing a sim­i­lar effect with humans Until we under­stand those fac­tors, we may be sur­prised to find a reduc­tion in face-to-face col­lab­o­ra­tion at work even as we archi­tect trans­par­ent, open spaces intend­ed to increase it.
Ethan S. Bern­stein, Stephen Turban

The Blend Makes the Difference: Caves and Commons

Dosis fac­it venerum!” Already Paracel­sus knew in the 16th cen­tu­ry that the dose deter­mines whether some­thing is haz­ardous or ben­e­fi­cial. This also applies to the design of mod­ern office spaces. Those who, for the sake of col­lab­o­ra­tion, exag­ger­ate open­ness poi­son the orga­ni­za­tion’s organ­ism. On the oth­er hand, the divi­sion of labour is exten­sive and does not decrease with increas­ing com­plex­i­ty. So her­mitage is no solu­tion either.

Orga­ni­za­tions need to design their offices with the right mix of caves for retreat and undis­turbed work on the one hand and com­mons for exchange and team­work on the oth­er. I am a big fan of this con­cept of caves and com­mons, which would be suf­fi­cient­ly real­ized for me if there were at least a library in addi­tion to the already exist­ing open-plan office spaces. What is cru­cial here is the auton­o­my to choose freely which envi­ron­ment best suits the respec­tive task and one’s own personality.

If orga­ni­za­tions don’t take proac­tive steps, peo­ple man­u­fac­ture their own caves — whether by work­ing from home, putting on ear­phones to tune out the dri­v­el, or sim­ply slip­ping out to the local WiFi café. The same is true for com­mons — there is a human need for peo­ple to gath­er around the water cool­er and so, mak­ing the work­place invit­ing in dif­fer­ent ways can build community
Leigh Thomp­son in Give Work­ers the Pow­er to Choose: Cave or Commons

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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