Open plan of­fices: do they re­ally work?

Too much in­for­ma­tion, too many dis­trac­tions, less pro­duc­tiv­ity, says new re­search. Does the con­clu­sion have merit?

Gulf News - - Special Report - BY JUMANA KHAMIS Staff Re­porter

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.

Un­clear trade-off

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.”

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