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Open plan offices reduce collaboration, study finds

Many organisations bring in open plan offices to increase collaboration between employees, but doing so could actually reduce staff interaction, research suggests.

A study of two American private sector workplaces found that moving from a traditional layout to an open office environment decreased face-to-face interaction between employees by around 70%.

While previous research has looked at dissatisfaction among employees with open plan offices, the authors — Stephen Turban and Ethan Bernstein, both of Harvard — believe this is the first study to electronically track staff movements through the use of wearable devices.

They also analysed the companies’ instant messaging and email services and found a significant uptick in digital communication, suggesting discussions had moved from face-to-face to online.

“Many organizations, like our two field sites, transform their office architectures into open spaces with the intention of creating more F2F [face-to-face] interaction and thus a more vibrant work environment,” the paper argues.

“What they often get — as captured by a steady stream of news articles professing the death of the open office — is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has worked in an open plan office. It’s easy to be distracted amid the ringing phones, casual chats and that one person sniffling their way through a cold. And of course there’s the prospect of any conversation you do have being overheard by the ten people within earshot.

Unsurprisingly, instead of walking over to their colleague’s desk to talk, many staff decide to send them a message.

“… Rather than have an F2F interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email,” the authors write.

“Executives reported to us qualitatively that productivity, as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the redesign.”

But is this a problem? Notwithstanding that the companies in question hoped for more interaction, should they be worried about conversations moving online?

The authors think so.

Management at one of the companies studied certainly told them the change had a negative impact.

“Executives reported to us qualitatively that productivity, as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the redesign,” the paper states.

This fits with what previous research suggests, that substituting face-to-face interactions with email lowers productivity. Certainly, if the aim is to increase collaboration and creative responses to problems, email seems particularly unsuited to the kind of incidental and casual conversations that may be useful in generating new ideas.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.