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Just How 'Open' Are Open Office Plans?

Total compensation is up because of better benefits packages. (Courtesy Venveo/Unsplash)
Total compensation is up because of better benefits packages. (Courtesy Venveo/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Open office plans are designed to encourage people to collaborate and communicate more effectively. But 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.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Ethan Bernstein (@ethanbernstein), an associate professor at Harvard Business School, about a recent study he co-authored on open office plans.

"They're very common. They've gone through ebbs and flows over the history of time," Bernstein says. "They were very, very popular, say, in the '60s and '70s. They got a little bit less popular after that, and then with the openness movement of the last couple of decades, they've gotten very popular."

Interview Highlights

On the popularity of open office plans, and their history and logic

"I think some point in the '90s, the word transparency went from meaning something literally you'd just see through, to being able to see all sorts of things.

"At least part of the logic behind open offices stood with the idea that, 'If I could see the people that I wanted to collaborate with, I would collaborate with them more, I would interact with them more.'

"Of course, the other reality is, if you can see the people, you're also probably in closer quarters, so there was a cost per square foot justification."

On why he and fellow co-author Stephen Turban conducted the study

"I find both sides of this debate equally compelling. On the one hand, it looks kind of miserable to somebody who would like to have some private space to get their work done. On the other hand, we have this image of the vibrancy of human interaction that takes place when you can just reach out and touch someone literally and talk to them.

"So I think that was why we wanted to do this. [We] wanted to see if it actually happens or not."

On how the study was conducted

"We picked a couple of companies, Fortune 500 companies, who were going through the move from cubicles to these really open spaces … and we instrumented each person with a badge, and these badges have sensors in them, and with those sensors, we were able to track face-to-face interaction.

"Add to that the fact that these days anybody quite frankly can track email and IM interaction, because that's all stored — those sort of digital breadcrumbs that get spread as we do anything these days — and we were able to see the volume of interaction between the people in these corporate headquarters, both before and after the move.

"We, just in this case, were interested in measuring volume of the interaction."

"These vibrant images that we have of all being together in one room were replaced by people putting on headphones ... focusing at their computer."

Ethan Bernstein

On the study's findings, which showed a drop in face-to-face interactions after the companies moved to open office spaces

"We found in both cases — it was actually striking how much the two were similar — the amount of face-to-face interaction dropped by about 70 percent and was replaced with interaction over email and IM.

"These vibrant images that we have of all being together in one room were replaced by people putting on headphones ... focusing at their computer, because, quite frankly, everyone around them can see them, so they want to look like they're intently working.

"I'm an academic. I'm in the world of trying to find interesting twists and unintended consequences of human behavior based on the ways in which we work, so it was an unintended consequence."

"As we've made progress towards this more and more quote-unquote open environment at work, is there a point at which we can go too far?"

Ethan Bernstein

On why the study focused on face-to-face interactions instead of employee satisfaction, and whether he thinks people have gone "too far" with open office plans

"The studies I mentioned, the time back in the '70s and '80s, there were lots of studies done of employee satisfaction, of employee stress, other self-reported measures, as a result of moving to open space. We were interested in the contemporary age ... If we could actually gather the data on whether people interact, we could get away from the satisfaction metric and toward something that seemed more real.

"Stephen and I didn't do this study with the intent of saying we should all go back to those days, only to ask the question, as we've made progress towards this more and more quote-unquote open environment at work, is there a point at which we can go too far?

"What we're saying is we might have gone too far if what we were trying to do is get more interaction. If all we were trying to do is save cost per square foot, or if all we were trying to do is get people to send more emails, then by all means keep going.

"Up till now, there was an expectation that I could have my cake and eat it too, that cost per square foot went down and that interaction and collaboration went up. And so why wouldn't I do this? And so without the fear or at least understanding that there might be a tradeoff, people have been just going straight ahead."

On a company he met near Silicon Valley that had an open office space and employees' reactions to it, and what future office spaces might look like

"I won't mention the company, but I did have three managers from a technology firm in that part of the country in my office, and one of them said, 'We don't have this problem. We figured out the open office a long time ago,' and the colleague of his, sitting right next to him, said, 'Well, actually, in my part of the company at least, if you listen for the interaction, you hear it all in the meeting rooms. You hear it all in the group spaces. You don't hear it in the open spaces.'

"That doesn't mean that those open spaces are ineffective. That might be exactly the way we want to work. We want to have cramped space where we're aware of who's there. Then we want to grab people, move them to a space in which we're comfortable having a conversation, and then we might work from home when we really need to do our individual work, and that mixture is the kind of thing architects are trying to work with property managers on, but that's really complex."

On another study he co-authored on the relationship between workplace productivity and the amount of employee interactions that happen

"I have another study that was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with Jesse Shore and David Lazer, and we find that if you're in a complex problem-solving task, that constant interaction and no interaction are not as good as intermittent interaction."

This segment aired on September 18, 2018.



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