Open plan offices: do they really work?
Too much information, too many distractions, less productivity, says new research. Does the conclusion have merit?
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.” Harvard Business School study on open plan offices
It all began sometime in the 1950s as a way to enable workers who performed repetitive tasks to be grouped to optimise space and accelerate an affinity of output. Now, after decades of unprecedented changes in the office culture, a staggering diversity of people with various job skills still sit in open plan offices, hoping to peak their productivity at all times of their office cycle.
But do open plan offices really boost productivity? Is it possible that a motley group of individuals with varying personal preferences for space, quiet, mood and ability and inspirations can work together in a mandatory collaboration that leads to spontaneity and creative bouts?
Researchers at the Harvard Business School don’t seem to think so.
Professors Ethan Burnstein and Stephen Turban involved two Fortune 500 companies that made the shift to an open office environment to conduct a research.
Using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones, as well as data on email and instant messenger use by employees, the researchers found in the first study that after the organisation made the move to open-plan offices, workers spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while, email exchanges rose 67 per cent and IM use went up 75 per cent.
In a second study, the researchers looked at shifts in interactions in specific pairs of colleagues, finding a similar drop in face-to-face communication and a smaller but still significant increase in electronic correspondence (emailing each other between 22 and 50 per cent more).
Need for privacy
There’s a “natural human desire for privacy, and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it,” Bernstein said. “What it was doing was creating not a more face-toface environment, but a more digital envionroment. That’s ironic because that’s not what people intend to try to do when creating open office spaces.”
Another wrinkle in their research, Bernstein said, is that not only did workers shift the mode of communication they used, but they tended to interact with different groups of people online than they did in person.
Moving from one kind of communication to another may not be all bad - “maybe email is just more efficient,” he said - but if managers want certain teams of people to be interacting, that may be lost more than they think.
The shift in office space could “have profound effects on productivity and the quality of work,” the study said.
Bernstein hopes the research will offer empirical evidence that will help managers consider the possible trade-offs of moving to an open office plan. In seeking a lower cost per square foot, they buy into the idea that it will also lead to more collaboration, even if it’s not clear that’s true.
“I do think we spend more of our time thinking about how to design workspaces based on the observer’s perspective - the manager - rather than the observed,” he said.
Open offices, Bernstein and Turban wrote, tend to be “overstimulating.” Too much information, too many distractions, too many people walking around or even just staring at their monitors - all that “appears to have the perverse outcome of reducing rather than increasing productive interaction.”
The researchers concluded: “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.”