Open Office Plans Affect Workplace Communication

Open Office Plan

Recently, Harvard Business School Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, Ethan Bernstein conducted a before-and-after study that may reinforce the already strong case against open office plans. Bernstein’s research uses observational evidence rather than self-reported data to show that communal workspaces don’t necessarily provide a collaborative environment. Lisa MacLellan, from Quartz at Work, summarized the study results.

Bernstein centered his research on a renovation at an unnamed Fortune 500 company that was engaged in a “so-called war on walls.” Employees participating in the study wore people analytics badges that anonymously tracked, but didn’t record, conversations. The sensors provided data the researchers could compare changes in in-person conversations against changes in online communication.

During the two studies, the researchers found that email and instant message (IM) conversations increased significantly after the office redesign to an open environment, while productivity declined. And, actual face-to-face interactions decreased by 72%. Before the renovation, employees met face to face 5.8 hours per person during the three-week study period. In the open office plan, the same people held face-to-face conversations only about 1.7 hours per person.

These employees turned to online communications much more often, however, sending 56% more email messages and 67% more IMs. The authors reasoned that by using electronic methods to communicate, employees were trying to recreate the privacy that cubicles had once provided.

A “Natural Human Response”

The authors call this social withdraw a “natural human response” triggered by a change in environment.

Bernstein suggests that when we feel we’re on display, part of our mind is preoccupied by social pressures, and people perform better doing routine tasks rather than creative ones under those circumstances. Knowing that others are watching impacts our ability to creatively solve a problem, and therefore be more productive. “Do I look busy?” becomes more important than “Am I doing my best work?”

Importantly, Bernstein’s study also found that when the cubical walls were removed, employees just didn’t take their usual in-person conversations online. Instead, they began emailing more with some people and communicating less with others. In short, open office plans impact employee networks, which in turn can affect the way teams work.

Social Media Versus Social Offices

Bernstein believes the study reinforces an existing argument that says occasional social interactions, not constant ones, improve our ability to solve complex problems. Physical boundaries, he writes, help people make sense of their environment, “clarifying who is watching and who is not, who has information and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who controls what and who does not, to whom one answers and to whom one does not.”

Trying to figure all this out in an open space can lead to overload, distraction, and poorer decisions.

Currently, many of us openly share large parts of our lives on social media, so it seems a bit strange that we haven’t adapted better to this. But, as Bernstein said in an interview with workplace strategy consultant Leigh Stringer, “We want people to follow us online, but not necessarily motion-by-motion in the office.”

Take Bernstein’s findings into consideration if you are thinking about redesigning your office space or planning a move to a new office space to ensure you both provide your employees with a comfortable workspace, and with one that promotes effective communication and collaboration.

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