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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