By Sarah Wells for TechCrunch
If you’re endlessly distracted by your co-workers in the gaping open office space you all share, you’re not alone. Compared to traditional office spaces, face-to-face interaction in open office spaces is down 70 percent with resulting slips in productivity, according to Harvard researchers in a new study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B this month.
In the study, researchers followed two anonymous Fortune 500 companies during their transitions between a traditional office space to an open plan environment and used a sensor called a “sociometric badge” (think company ID on a lanyard) to record detailed information about the kind of interactions employees had in both spaces. The study collected information in two stages; first for several weeks before the renovation and the second for several weeks after.
While the concept behind open office spaces is to drive informal interaction and collaboration among employees, the study found that for both groups of employees monitored (52 for one company and 100 for the other company) face-to-face interactions dropped, the number of emails sent increased between 20 and 50 percent and company executives reported a qualitative drop in productivity.
“[Organisations] transform their office architectures into open spaces with the intention of creating more [face-to-face] interaction and thus a more vibrant work environment,” the study’s authors, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, wrote.
“[But] what they often get—as captured by a steady stream of news articles professing the death of the open office 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).”
While this study is far from the first to point fingers at open office space designs, the researchers claim this is the first study of its kind to collect qualitative data on this shift in working environment instead of relying primarily on employee surveys.
From their results, the researchers provide three cautionary tales:
- Open office spaces don’t actually promote interaction. Instead, they cause employees to seek privacy wherever they can find it.
- These open spaces might spell bad news for collective company intelligence or, in other words, an overstimulating office space creates a decrease in organizational productivity.
- Not all channels of interaction will be effected equally in an open layout change. While the number of emails sent in the study did increase, the study found that the richness of this interaction was not equal to that lost in face-to-face interactions.
Seems like it might be time to (first, find a quiet room) and go back to the drawing board with the open office design.
Open plan offices are like Marmite: you either love them or hate them. And they continue to strongly divide opinion in the workplace.
But one thing is for sure, they are likely to be around for a while as businesses struggle to balance the tension between the need for immediate collaboration and the demand for individual, quiet spaces where people can concentrate.
Richard Andrews, MD of Inspiration Office, says that his company continues to install both open plan offices and private office spaces in equal measure despite the growing global pushback against open plan.
“It’s a horse for courses situation. There is no cut and dried winner in the debate. It really does depend on whether open plan is best for your employees and the way they work rather than a philosophical debate.”
Andrews does acknowledge however that there is a growing body of recent evidence that shows open plan makes it harder to work.
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that studied 40 000 workers in 300 US office buildings concluded that enclosed private offices outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of Indoor Environmental Quality – namely in acoustics, privacy and proxemics (how uncomfortable people feel when forced into close proximity to other people) issues.
Said Andrews: “Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”
Another study by SP Banbury and DC Berry showed that loud noise has become one of the greatest irritants at work. It revealed that 99% of employees reported that their concentration was impaired by various types of office noise, especially telephones left ringing at vacant desks and people talking in the background. A further study showed that 68% of those surveyed become frustrated when sounds levels rise above normal conversation level.
Even employees at Apple, which just spent $5 billion and six years building a centralised campus around the open-plan office concept, are reportedly dissatisfied. Some are said to have insisted on their own space outside of the new spaceship style building.
“But, just like a taste for Marmite, many businesses have a definite passion for the lack of walls or other physical barriers in open plan offices.
“Open spaces makes it easier for employees to interact with each other on a regular basis. The constant intermingling not only generates a sense of camaraderie, it also enhances the flow of information and teamwork.”
Andrews noted than another benefit which may not immediately spring to mind is that of budget.
“Having an open plan office can save the company money, as costs are reduced on construction, utilities and office equipment. It is more efficient to have everyone in one room in terms of utility bills and office supplies. It also provides the best flexibility to accommodate extra capacity for when the company grows as desks can easily be reconfigured.
“It really comes to how your company works best,” Andrews concluded.
Extroverts make up a large percentage of the workforce who thrive in the hustle and bustle of an energetic open plan office, but what about the rest?