Open office is not a good idea!

A extremely pervasive belief has been that Open Office Architecture promotes interaction, improves productivity, dismantles communication barriers and so on. I have met so many CEOs pointing to open office architecture as evidence of their flat and collaborativeculture. Of course, effectiveness (or not) of open plan offices was never supported by any data – if i have to guess, it was driven by ‘break down barriers by removing actual barriers’ or some similar mantra.

I then read a fascinating study which demonstrated that this well established belief in open office is likely inaccurate. This was study conducted by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban from the Harvard Business School. Unfortunately for proponents of open plan office – the evidence points to the other direction! You can read the study here or here are the highlights:

  • The research question was “Does removing spatial boundaries at work to create open, unbounded offices increase interaction”
  • After moving to an open plan office, face to face interactions reduced significantly, in some cases by up to 70%!
  • Open architecture actually leads to an increased desire to maintain privacy, sometimes by using methods like wearing headphones or after observing a colleague’s presence at desk and then sending them an email or IM. 
  • Consistent with reduction in face to face interactions, rate email and IM messaging increased by 20%-50%
  • Research evidence indicates that open offices are overstimulating and decrease productivity.
  • Continuous social influences (i.e. having an open office) reduces effectiveness of complex problem solving meetings. Intermediate social influences were found to be most effective. 
  • While open offices drive people from face to face to email interactions it doesn’t also work the other way around (also known as ‘Defeating the purpose of open plan office‘). 

The authors are of course careful to emphasize that face to face collaboration is much more complex and influenced by any other factors. However, the fact remains that open office architecture is definitely not the answer.

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