The closed world of open office environments.

If you ask company managers and CFOs if they prefer “open office” concepts over private offices, you may well get a different answer than if you ask the people who actually work in open office environments.

There are two attractive aspects about open office plans that surely warm the hearts of many business managers. One is the notion that an open office environment encourages more interaction and spontaneous collaboration among employees.

The other is that open office concepts don’t cost as much to build and maintain as do private offices.

So … let’s break this down a bit.

Speaking personally, I’ve visited numerous company headquarters and branch locations where open office plans are prevalent … but what I see and hear isn’t interaction. Instead, it’s more likely to be mounds of white noise with employees sitting at their desks focusing intently on their computer screens.

Any interaction that may be happening is closer to the hushed sounds of a reference library — or even the confessional zone in the back of a Roman Catholic or Anglican church — than it is to any kind of bright, casual conversation with ideation happening all over the place.

This can’t be what managers had in mind – even if they’re shaving 25% or more off of their facilities management budget.

Now we have some new evidence to support the anecdotal evidence. Researchers at the Harvard Business School studied two Fortune 500 companies that made the transition to an open office plan from one where workers had more privacy.  The firms agreed to allow themselves to be the subjects of before/after evaluation.

The research wasn’t done via a survey, which would likely be susceptible to respondent bias (a fear of being honest and saying something that goes against the common managerial POV). Instead, the actual worker behaviors were charted using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones that were worn by the employees for several weeks before and after the office redesigns.

The badges worn by the participants included an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth® sensor and an accelerometer that, when combined with a microphone, could discern when two people had a face-to-face interaction (but without recording the actual words spoken).

The Harvard research also studied before/after data pertaining to the volume of e-mail and instant messenger use by the employees.

Even though other variables remaining the same in the before/after evaluation (the same employees … before/after study periods occurring during the same business cycle), the changes in behavior were startling:

  • Employees spent ~73% less time in face-to-face interactions
  • E-mail use rose by ~67%
  • Instant messenger use grew by ~75%

The research also looked at shifts in interactions between specific pairs of work colleagues, where it found a similar dropoff in face-to-face communications along with increased electronic correspondence (although not to the same degree as the overall research results showed).

Furthermore, the research determined that workers tended to interact with different groups of people online than they did in person, which opens up even more potential concerns about the reduction in collaboration that would be happening as a result of moving to the open office concept.

Speaking in a post-study interview, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein’s conclusion was that there’s “a natural human desire for privacy — and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it.”

In the case of preferred office configurations, people simply don’t like fishbowls. Deskside chats don’t happen, and other face-to-face interaction is severely limited as well.

In other words, open office plans don’t result in increased personal interaction, but they do create a more digital environment.  That seems like the polar opposite of what management wants.

Of course, to reduce a company’s facilities budget, an open office environment remains the preferred thing to do.  So maybe companies need to drop all of the pretense about “facilitating positive collaboration and spontaneous brainstorming.” Just tell employees what’s really behind shifting to an open office concept:  spending fewer dollars.

At least employees might appreciate the honesty rather than the obfuscation …

A detailed article summarizing the research, co-authored by Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, can be accessed here.

2 thoughts on “The closed world of open office environments.

  1. Maybe offices should be private and expensive—and everyone should have a standing desk and get exercise and save the company money by not having heart attacks!

    That’s a lighthearted reply, but the results aren’t surprising. Years ago, an employer sent me to the Johnson O’Connor Human Engineering laboratory, where I submitted to four days of very strange aptitude tests which determined that I was an introvert hiding behind my vocabulary and would not only want to work alone, but with the office door closed! I tried to fight this tendency, but somehow the door always remained closed.

    The tests also indicated I would hate cold calls and try to reach people when they were out at lunch. All true!

    Perhaps employees with a more extroverted temperament than mine would feel differently, but someone like me will always prefer a “real” office. I suppose cubicles do prevent kissing at work, though. Either that or encourage voyeurism!

    Ayn Rand once wrote: “Civilization is progress towards a society of privacy.” Corporate strategists should take note of that.

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