In the 1950s a German team named Quickborner developed the office landscape, which used conventional furniture, curved screens, large potted plants, and organic geometry to create work groups on large, open floors. Office landscape was quickly supplanted by office-furniture companies which developed cubicles based on panel-hung or systems furniture. Many terms (mostly derisive) have been used over time for offices using the old-style, large arrays of open cubicles. An increase in knowledge work and the emergence of mobile technology during the late 20th-century led to an evolution in open-plan offices. In some cases, these are not assigned to one particular individual, but are available to any employee of the company on either a reservable or “drop-in” (first come, first served) basis. Terms for this strategy include Hoteling, “alternative officing” and “hotdesking“.
In July 2018, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, at Harvard Business School and Harvard University, respectively, recruited 52 employees at the global headquarters of a Fortune 500 multinational company that was about to undergo a redesign of an entire floor, stripping out the individual cubicles to create a fully open-plan workspace.
The participants, whose roles included sales, technology and human resources, wore a “sociometric badge” and microphone for three weeks prior to the redesign. Then a couple of months after the office refit, they wore the badge and microphone again for another three weeks.
The Bluetooth-enabled electronic badges and the microphones allowed the researchers to monitor the frequency of the employees’ face-to-face interactions. The company also granted access to their servers so the researchers could look for any changes in the use of email and instant messenger.
The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office design, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.
A second study involving 100 employees at another Fortune 500 company was similar but this time the researchers monitored changes to the nature of the interactions between specific pairs of colleagues before the shift to an open-plan office compared with afterwards.
There were 1830 interacting dyads and, of these, 643 reduced their amount of face-to-face interaction after the workspace became open-plan, compared with just 141 showing more physical interaction. Overall, face-to-face time decreased by around 70 per cent across the participating employees, on average, with email use increasing by between 22 per cent and 50 per cent (depending on the estimation method used).
If you’ve ever sought refuge from the gold-fish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you’ve decided you’d rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise.
The real-life setting of this research is a major advantage but it does, of course, come at the expense of full experimental control and it remains a possibility that other factors, besides the office design change, may explain the results. The researchers did attempt to mitigate this possibility, such as by allowing time for the employees to settle into the new office design before resuming data collection.
“While it is possible to bring chemical substances together under specific conditions of temperature and pressure to form the desired compound, more factors seem to be at work in achieving a similar effect with humans,” the researchers said. “Until we understand those factors, we may be surprised to find a reduction in face-to-face collaboration at work even as we architect transparent, open spaces intended to increase it.”
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This research first appeared here: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239