Harvard: Open plan office closes people up, lowers productivity

Harvard study debunks the belief that an open office encourages open communication. Researchers found that it's quite the opposite.

open-plan-office
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Open-plan offices are all the rage right now. Companies are removing walls, in hopes of breaking down metaphorical walls among employees. It’s also great for the company’s bottom line since space can be better utilised. But instead of being a catalyst for more conversations and collaboration, a new Harvard research found that open offices made employees keep to themselves.

The researchers followed two Fortune 500 companies making a switch to an open office and compared the employees’ interaction before and after the office redesign.

150 participating employees wore a lanyard with a device attached to it, known as a sociometric badge, and captured the frequency and length of the employees’ face-to-face interactions. The badge recorded the wearer’s movement, location and physical interactions with colleagues over 15 work days before the renovation, and approximately three months later after the renovation, for another 15 workdays. The researchers also counted the participating employees’ emails and text messages sent over the two periods.

A sociometric badge used in the open plan office study.
A sociometric badge used in the open plan office study.

Open office, closed minds

The result? Face-to-face interaction plunged by about 70% while the length and number of emails and text messages increased by between 20% and 50%.

Before the office redesign, employees were interacting face-to-face for an average of 5.8 hours per day. This number was reduced to just 1.7 hours after the open plan was introduced. The lack of physical interaction was supplemented by 56% more sent emails, 20% more received emails, 41% more emails that employees were CC’ed in, 67% more IM message activity and 75% more words sent via IM.

But that’s okay, as long as work performance go up, right? Unfortunately, that’s not what one of the firms in the study discovered.

The firm conducted an internal and confidential work performance review and found out that productivity has declined after the change to an open working environment. While it is expected that productivity will plunge with more time spent conversing virtually rather than face to face, the surprising part is that a more open office actually triggered an unexpected shift in the mode of communication that is less open.

Lack of privacy the primary reason behind lowered productivity

The researchers attribute the lower productivity in open offices to the lack of privacy. The employees have to find other ways to cope with being more visible, such as putting on headphones and appearing as busy as possible. They could also be trying to preserve whatever privacy they and others have left by choosing to send an email to a co-worker who seems to be occupied with work so as not to interrupt them, even though they could simply walk up to them to have a chat.

Many studies and personal accounts also point to more distractions, more resentment and increased stress levels. Instead of helping to save money, these open-plan offices stir up ill-feelings that end up costing companies more.

So before you hop on the open office bandwagon, consider the costs involved.

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