Open-plan offices make workers less collaborative, Harvard study finds

Open plan offices 2018

Foyer of the Lyons Studio. Commissioned Professional Photography: (Peter Bennets , 2010)

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Writer, Formative Content


Open-plan offices allow employees to see and hear their colleagues all day long, so you might think all this transparency would encourage them to work more collaboratively.

But according to new Harvard research, this type of office environment actually has the opposite effect: it reduces the amount of time people spend talking face-to-face and instead drives them to interact by text or email.

Shh..keep your voice down

Previous studies showed that open-plan layouts reduce productivity, partly because people tend to feel uncomfortable holding serious business conversations within earshot of large numbers of colleagues.

But the rationale behind the open-plan design was that, as well as reducing spending on office space, any drop in output would be offset by increased levels of teamwork.

However, in their study, Ethan S. Bernstein, of Harvard Business School and Stephen Turban, of Harvard University found that when two Fortune 500 companies changed their office layouts from cubicles to open-plan desks, face-to-face interactions among employees dropped by about 70%.

Employees became more reluctant to give negative feedback or address sensitive issues in front of colleagues, which drove them to find more private ways to interact. Instead of talking to each other in person, the study participants turned to their phones and computers.

To build a picture of interactions both before and after the boundaries were removed, the study participants wore a device, known as a sociometric badge, which recorded their conversations with colleagues and information about their posture, location and movements.

Study participants wore a device to track their conversations and movements.

Image: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

The researchers also tracked the number of instant messages and emails.

After the redesign of their offices, the participants sent 56% more emails to each other, received 20% more emails, and were cc’d on 41% more emails.

Their use of instant messages increased by 67%.

In summary, Bernstein and Turban wrote: “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.”

Future workplaces

The way we work is changing rapidly, and improved communications and greater connectivity mean some companies choose to shun the open-plan layout altogether.

The number of people working from home and in public spaces such as cafes and libraries is increasing.

As the chart shows, over 5% of Americans are working from home, and this number is forecast to increase in the coming years – albeit from a low base.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Mozambique pledging conference hopes to soften devastating blow of back-to-back cyclones

This billion-dollar campaign wants to protect 30% of the planet by 2030

ILO welcomes new UNDP report that places decent work at the heart of sustainable development

UN rights chief calls for release of hundreds abducted and abused in South Sudan

The future of manufacturing is smart, secure and stable

European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, who gets it and who pays the bill?

4 innovative renewable energy projects powering Europe’s green future

The Europeans with a job diminish dangerously

Civil protection: Parliament strengthens EU disaster response capability

Drinking water: new plans to improve tap water quality and cut plastic litter

Global health challenges require global medical students

Brexit negotiations: back to square one, tougher words, no good faith

After this year’s Climate Action Summit, what happens next?

Parlamentarians to “break up” with reality in the Google antitrust case

3 ways governments and carmakers can keep up with the future of transport

10 things Europe does better than the rest of the world

“If they think they can slave an entire nation, then they will just have the opposite results!”, Alexis Tsipras cries out from the Greek parliament

How can we measure real progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?

Cambodia: Giving back to UN peacekeeping

UN chief condemns terror attack in Kismayo, Somalia

How public private partnerships must evolve to create social impact

Summer 2018 Interim Economic Forecast: Resilient Growth amid increased uncertainty

5 amazing people fighting to save the oceans

Chinese economy to raise speed and help the world grow

Somalia: UN congratulates Puntland region’s newly-elected President

We are close yet so far…

EU Youth Goals – we are shapers not listeners

The Commission unsuccessfully pretends to want curbing of tax evasion

FROM THE FIELD: Stopping aquatic hitchhikers to safeguard environments at sea

New roadmap toward healthier and cleaner oceans adopted by UN Environment and European Commission

5 facts to know about Africa’s powerhouse – Nigeria

Global Citizen-Volunteer Internships

European Defence Fund on track with €525 million for Eurodrone and other joint research and industrial projects

The relation of deforestation and respiratory diseases

Here’s how data can shine a light on financial crime

Why South Africa is on a path of economic renewal

Eurozone has practically entered a deflation trap

EU budget 2019 approved: focus on the young, innovation and migration

Yemen war: The battle rages on, children suffer most

Despite progress towards peace, Afghanistan facing ‘daunting challenges’ ahead of presidential vote

“Asia-Pacific takes stock of ambitious development targets”, written by the Heads of UNFPA and ESCAP

G7 summit: Trump Vs. G6 leaders on trade and climate change

Who will secure Lithuania?

Act now to end violence, Zeid urges Nicaraguan authorities

China is the first non-EU country to invest in Europe’s €315 billion Plan

Intel @ European Business Summit 2014: Better decisions now, the new business dashboard 

New forms of work: deal on measures boosting workers’ rights

Maros Sefcovic Canete European Commission Energy

Better late than never? Commission runs now to fight energy dependency on Russia with the sustainable energy security package

Warmongers ready to chew what is left of social protection spending

How can consumers be effectively protected from insurance sellers?

China and UK relations post Brexit as EU addresses Chinese takeovers

Manipulating privacy and reaping the benefits of technology

South Sudan ‘revitalized’ peace deal must be inclusive, Security Council hears

Conditions deteriorating alarmingly in Yemen, warns senior UN official

Malta: MEPs conclude fact-finding visit to assess Caruana Galizia murder inquiry

Investing in rural women and girls, ‘essential’ for everyone’s future: UN chief

At last Britain considers a super-soft Brexit

Long live Eurozone’s bank supervisor down with the EU budget supremo

Human health – litmus paper for the climate change?

MWC19 Wrap Up, in association with The European Sting, GSMA’s Brussels Media Partner for the 6th Consecutive Year

More Stings?

Comments

  1. Did you know the study engaged with less than 50% of the two organizations it analyzed? And if you dig into the % increase of emails, it only comes to 1.2 more emails per person sent in a three-week time span. I think it is worthwhile to dig into the research a bit more, and that the real solution of open office vs. “not” is to not be so binary in design. More information on dissecting the Harvard study here: https://workdesign.com/2018/08/a-workplace-strategists-response-to-the-harvard-research-on-open-plans/

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s