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.
Although the current work zeitgeist is for open plan offices, further thought is needed to keep different types of office workers happy throughout the workday.
Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, says the open plan office has been around since the 1960s when it was first introduced in Germany to boost communication and de-emphasise status.
“As the idea took hold in North America in the decades that followed, employers switched from traditional offices with one or two people per room to large, open spaces.
“Right now, it is estimated that roughly two-thirds of U.S. workers spent their days in open-plan offices. South Africa has a similar experience.”
But as the layout became commonplace, problems emerged.
A 2002 study of Canadian oil-and-gas-company employees who moved from a traditional office to an open one found that on every aspect measured, from feelings about the work environment to co-worker relationships to self-reported performance, employees were significantly less satisfied in the open office.
One explanation for why this might be is that open offices prioritise communication and collaboration but sacrifice privacy.
“A reason for this is that ‘architectural privacy’ (the ability to close one’s door) went hand in hand with a sense of ‘psychological privacy’. And a healthy dose of psychological privacy correlates with greater job satisfaction and performance.” Trim noted.
With a lack of privacy comes noise—the talking, typing, and even chewing co-workers.
A 1998 study found that background noise, whether or not it included speech, impaired both memory and the ability to do mental arithmetic, while another study found that even music hindered performance. There’s also the question of lighting.
Says Trim: “Open offices tend to cluster cubicles away from windows, relying more on artificial light. Research has shown that bright, overhead light intensifies emotions, enhancing perceptions of aggression which could lead to a lack of focus during meetings if arguments get heated.”
Another under-appreciated twist is that different personality types respond differently to office conditions. For example, a study on background music found its negative effects to be much more pronounced for introverts than for extroverts.
“Even the office coffee machine could be hurting some employees. Although a moderate dose of caffeine was found to enhance long-term information retention and was ranked as the most important thing in the workplace by an Inspiration Office survey in 2016, caffeine has previously been shown to hinder introverts’ cognitive performance during the workday.”
A recent craze is the standing desk, inspired by the widely reported health risks of sitting all day. One study found that people who sat at least six hours a day had a higher risk of premature death than those who sat three hours or fewer—regardless of physical-activity level. But being on one’s feet presents its own health risks: standing for more than eight hours a day has been tied to back and foot pain.
So what’s a company to do?
“Give employees their own private offices, with plenty of sun, and turn off the overhead lights.
“Supply the introverts with noise-canceling headphones and decaf, but pump the extroverts full of caffeine and even let them listen to music now and then.
“And don’t let anyone sit too much—or stand too much.” Trim adds.