Open office plans are often touted by companies as a way to encourage interaction among employees, but in practice, open offices are often a lot less collaborative than they’re designed to be. In fact, new research goes so far as to say that they cause people to “socially withdraw,” according to a study spotted by BPS Research Digest.
In the study, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Harvard researchers outfitted employees of two major corporations with sensor badges that could analyze their interactions. These badges—containing an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth transmitter, an accelerometer, and a microphone—could sense when employees were facing another person, whether they were speaking or listening (though it didn’t record what they were saying), if they were moving, and where in the office they were standing. The researchers also analyzed the employee’s corporate email and instant messaging data to determine whether people starting using digital communications more after they started working in open offices.
In one study, the researchers examined 52 employees working at a multinational Fortune 500 company that had recently decided to transform one of the floors in its headquarters to an open office. The company moved workers from workspaces with walls to a completely wall-free desk design with a similar layout. The researchers were able to record participants before and after the change.
In a second study, they analyzed 100 employees working in the headquarters of another multinational Fortune 500 company. This company was in the middle of redesigning its offices, too, and the researchers collected data before the redesign, when employees were working in cubicles, and afterward, when they were assigned to work at open desk spaces without dividers.
They found that the redesigns significantly changed how people interacted—and not in the way intended by most open-office advocates. Face-to-face interactions decreased by 70 percent as people began to opt for digital communication methods. Outgoing emails went up by between 20 and 50 percent after the change. “In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM,” the researchers note.
While companies hope to throw all their employees together in a room and create a culture of buzzing collaboration, the results are starkly different. “What they often get,” the researchers write, “is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”
Part of the problem is that in an open layout, even the smallest interactions end up broadcast to the whole office—which is awkward at best, and actively distracting to coworkers at worst. “Rather than have [a face-to-face] interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email.”
While previous research has tested employee satisfaction with open offices (and often found it lacking), this is one of the first studies to find an empirical way to measure how open offices can change social behavior at work.
The open office trend probably isn’t going away anytime soon. Companies may tout the collaboration benefits, but there's another reason they're so popular: Squeezing people together into long desks also helps businesses save on rent. Whether those rent savings balance out the cost of lost productivity is up for debate. But now at least we can say for sure that tearing down walls doesn’t actually get people talking to each other.
[h/t BPS Research Digest]