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Want Teamwork? Kill Open Offices.

Topics: Data & Research
open offices
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Open offices reduce face-to-face interactions among coworkers by about 70 percent, according to new research from Harvard.

In two field studies, researchers followed workers at two corporate headquarters that transitioned to open-plan offices. The team gathered data on servers and wearable devices, tracking workers’ face-to-face contact, plus their email and instant messaging communication.

Per researchers Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban:

Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, 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.

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The Downside of Interacting Electronically

If you’re sick of meetings — and even sicker of idle office chatter when you’re facing project deadlines — this might sound like good news. After all, wasn’t the concern with open offices that they’d lure us into more chitchat, not less?

But according to these results, lack of human interaction comes with a communication cost.

“Employees became more reluctant to give negative feedback or address sensitive issues in front of colleagues, which drove them to find more private ways to interact,” wrote Johnny Wood at World Economic Forum’s Formative Content. “Instead of talking to each other in person, the study participants turned to their phones and computers.”

Further, Wood pointed out that other studies have shown that open offices “reduce productivity, partly because people tend to feel uncomfortable holding serious business conversations within earshot of large numbers of colleagues.”

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So Why Have Open Offices?

Even if this study is replicated on a larger scale, don’t hold your breath waiting for your employer to go back to cubicles … or better yet, real offices with doors.

Management often sells the open office concept based on increased collaboration, and while that may be a factor, it’s also true that removing cubicles and doors allows for greater flexibility — and lower real estate costs. It’s easier to staff up (or scale down) when you don’t have to deal with permanent walls.

How much money are companies saving? One data analysis from Eric Rood estimated that a global giant like Bank of America or Microsoft could save hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate costs each year. If you work at a smaller org, the savings are lower, but may be more significant to the bottom line.

The obvious solution? Let everyone work at home. If open offices have a negative impact on collaboration, and “closed” offices are becoming a thing of the past, maybe it’s time for companies to move toward the future and embrace telecommuting. While working remotely comes with its own challenges in terms of collaboration, there are also benefits — potential increases in productivity among them.

Tell Us What You Think

Open-plan offices – love ‘em or hate ‘em? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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