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Final Verdict: Workers Hate Open Offices And They Reduce Productivity


It has been one of the pillars of modern office design and workplace theory: open offices, with fewer walls, doors and spatial boundaries, encourage interaction and collaboration between workers.

A central tenet of the coworking phenomenon is the prevailing assumption that mingling with co-workers will expose you to a bounty of new ideas — and large corporates in all fields have taken the bait to tear down office walls, dismantle cubicles and remove any sense of workplace solitude.

But a new study from two Harvard academics, published by the Royal Society of Great Britain, suggest that this idea has no basis in reality, and that office design should be more nuanced. That is because their research shows that open office spaces actually cause workers to interact with each other less frequently and the office layouts kill productivity.

Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Harvard Business School and Harvard University conducted a study of two companies where entire divisions saw their workspace redesigned to become entirely open plan.

They hooked a sample of workers up with Bluetooth-enabled badges and microphones and then measured the face-to-face interactions of the employees. They also measured the use of email and instant messenger services of the same group. They did this for three weeks prior to the change in office design, and then for the same amount of time a couple of months after the refit.

“This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture,” the authors said in the report of their findings. “The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.”

The findings were conclusive. In the first study, face-to-face interactions dropped by 73%, use of email rose 67% and use of instant messenger rose 75%. In the second study face-to-face interactions dropped by 70% and electronic communication rose by between 22% and 50% depending on the measure used.

“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 authors said.

They added that because you are constantly on view and worried about being seen talking, or having your conversations overheard, people chose to email or use a messaging system instead.

The second study also found that open architecture created too much stimulation and distraction. And because people were emailing and messaging more rather than speaking face to face, the quality of interactions declined and productivity suffered.

Finally, the authors suggested that there is no set template of how to use office space to get people to collaborate.