March 8, 2019
Maybe cube farms aren’t such a terrible working arrangement after all.
A pair of studies by Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban found that switching to an open office plan does a number on employee interaction. The first of their studies found that employees spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger increased by 67% and 75%, respectively.
It’s the opposite, in fact, of the intended result. “As well as their cost-saving appeal, the rationale for large open-plan offices is that they are expected to act as a crucible for human chemistry, increasing face-to-face encounters between colleagues to the benefit of creativity and collaboration,” writes Christian Barrett in the British Psychological Society Research Digest. “Unfortunately it’s well-established that most workers don’t like them.”
In the first study, Bernstein and Turban took a before-and-after look at the interactions of 52 employees at a Fortune 500 company on the verge of removing cubicles from an entire floor of its headquarters and switching to an open plan. The study participants, whose job functions included sales, technology and human resources, wore a “sociometric badge” and microphone for three weeks before the seating-plan redesign.
Then, a couple of months after adjusting to the office refit, the participants wore the badge and microphone again for another three weeks. By that point, as the numbers above demonstrate, they’d taken to tuning out their fellow employees.
The researchers undertook a second study involving 100 employees at another Fortune 500 company. The premise was similar—and broadly, so was the outcome—but the methodology was different.
This time, Bernstein and Turban monitored changes in the nature of interactions between specific pairs of colleagues before the shift to an open-plan office and then afterward.
In all, there were 1,830 pairings and of these, 643 reduced their amount of face-to-face interaction after the workspace became open-plan, compared with just 141 who interacted more frequently. Overall, face-to-face time decreased by an average of 70% across the participating employees.
“If you’ve ever sought refuge from the goldfish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you’ve decided you’d rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers, and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise,” Barrett writes.
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