Oh, the open office. A trendy design concept. What it looks like: No walls, a clean sweep of open desk surface populated by laptop-tapping employees, supposedly communicating and collaborating like never before. What it feels like: A fishbowl, a nude beach, a factory floor, a large room filled with stressed employees desperately trying to block each other out with headphones.
Employers still love the idea of the open office, because it’s cheap, stylish, maximizes real estate and enables constant surveillance of employees. But the evidence continues to stack up against the actual benefits. It turns out the much-vaunted collaboration that is supposed to arise in an open office environment doesn’t happen; in fact, just the opposite occurs.
Researchers from Harvard Business School and Harvard University examined interpersonal collaborations between workers in multinational companies that were transforming their headquarters to open office plans. The same workers were studied for eight weeks in their previous traditional office environment and eight weeks in the new open office space.
“To our knowledge, no prior study has directly measured the effect on actual interaction that results from removing spatial boundaries to create an open office environment,” said Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban, authors of the study “The Impact of Open Offices on Human Collaboration.”
Turban and Bernstein found that instead of collaborating more, the volume of face-to-face interaction between employees decreased about 70 percent. There was an associated increase in electronic interaction; Instead of talking to coworkers they could actually see across the desk, employees were emailing or instant messaging them.
The open office appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates; when you visually interact with people all day, talking to them feels like a bridge too far. Workers are socially tapped out just by seeing each other all day.