Are Open Offices really Open?

Are Open Offices really Open?

By: Jill Mendoza

We hear a lot about how todays work environments, especially the open office environment, should be designed to encourage people to collaborate and communicate more effectively. Unfortunately, as design professionals, we find that many people who work in these environments choose to isolate themselves instead, by wearing headphones and communicating through email and instant messaging services rather than talking in person.

Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, recently co-authored a study on open office plans and has some interesting findings.  A portion of the Abstract from the study reads as:

“Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes. Contrary to common belief, studies indicate the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) , with an associated increase in electronic interaction. 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. 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 results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.

In addition to the study you may also listen to an interview Ethan Bernstein taped by Jeremy Hobson on NPR’s Here & Now segment that aired on September 18th, 2018.

With the openness movement the last couple of decades, both sides of the debate are equally compelling. In the study noted above, they choose a couple of fortune 500 companies and gave their employees an electronic badge that measured volume of interaction.

They found more people tended to work from home because of moving to open space. Although they did not focus on satisfaction, many of us are asking if we’ve gone to far with the open office.  If the intent was to get people to talk to each other more we have, if the intent was to get people to email more, then perhaps we haven’t.

Many of our clients have observed that interaction happens in small meeting rooms and conference rooms, and not in the open areas. Contrary to many beliefs, a truly impactful work environment is not necessarily reflected in amount or the openness of the space but more in a thoughtful plan and design that is focused on the desired outcome.  How does your open work environment impact your interaction and communication activities?