Breaking down walls and cubicles in offices can create even more barriers to productivity and collaboration, according to a new study.
Employees at two Fortune 500 multinationals saw the time for face-to-face interaction decreased by about 70 percent, email usage between 22 and 56 percent, and a drop in productivity after their traditional office spaces were converted to open floor plans — that is, those without walls. or boxes that seem to create barriers to interaction. The findings, recently published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Bsuggest that removing physical dividing lines may actually make it more difficult for employers to foster collaboration and collective intelligence among their employees.
Many companies have waged a so-called “war on walls” to try to create such vibrant workspaces, wrote Harvard authors Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban. But “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 workers who choose to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g., by wearing large headphones) while seem to be as busy as possible (because everyone can see them).”
Before the study, it was clear from employee surveys and media reports that employees are not fans of the open architecture trend. Employees complain about noise, distraction, decreased productivity, loss of privacy and the feeling of being “watched”. In addition, studies have suggested that open offices can be bad for workers’ health.
Still, Bernstein and Turban write that until now there has been a paucity of data on how employee behavior changes in these borderless, despised workplaces. To get to that data, they enlisted workers at two major companies as their employers began converting office spaces from traditional closed offices and cubicles to open, borderless space.
In the first anonymous company — codenamed OpenCo1 — the researchers tracked the activity of 52 employees for 15 days prior to the redesign and then, three months later, for another 15 days after the redesign. The three-month hiatus allowed the employees – who worked in sales, human resources, technology, product development and leadership – to settle into their new work environment.
The workers wore a badge with a series of sensors that monitored their interactions and movements: an infrared sensor recorded who they were confronted with; a microphone picked up office chatter; an accelerometer registered movement; and a Bluetooth sensor tracked their location in the office. A face-to-face interaction was recorded when employees’ infrared sensors faced each other, microphones picked up alternating speech, and location monitors indicated that employees were close to each other. The interaction ended when one of these conditions stopped for five seconds. The researchers also monitored electronic communication between employees.
Ultimately, the researchers recorded 96,778 face-to-face interactions, 84,026 emails, and 25,691 instant messages.
Outside the borders
After the open redesign, employees spent 72 percent less time interacting with each other in person. The raw numbers rose to an average of 5.8 hours of face-to-face time per day per person before the redesign, but only 1.7 hours of face-to-face time per person per day after that. Meanwhile, electronic communication increased; employees sent 56 percent more emails to their colleagues and 67 percent more instant messages.
Company executives also shared in qualitative terms that employee productivity — as measured by internal, confidential statistics — had also fallen. They did not disclose the magnitude of the productivity decline.
The researchers then essentially replicated this observational study in the second anonymous company, OpenCo2. But this time, they enrolled more employees and tracked them for longer periods of time. That is, they followed 100 employees for eight weeks for a similar office overhaul and two months after that for another eight weeks. The researchers also collected information on pairs of people known to communicate with each other — dyads — and about employee attributes, including gender, role and desk location.
The researchers found very similar effects to those in OpenCo1. Face-to-face interaction time decreased by 67 percent to 71 percent in OpenCo2, depending on how the researchers parse the data on dyads and desk distance. And emailing increased between 22 and 50 percent. (The researchers didn’t look at instant messaging data for this company.) Unsurprisingly, employees with desks close together or who worked on the same team interacted more, but the effects were smaller than expected. Gender was not a factor in interaction levels.
Together, the researchers conclude that breaking the wall had the opposite effect. They speculate that the reasons may be that employees have limitations on their interactions and that they have boundaries that help them understand their environment. Privacy concerns can also be a major reason. They write:
In keeping with the fundamental human desire for privacy and past evidence that privacy can increase productivity, when office architecture makes everyone more perceptible or “transparent” it can dampen [face-to-face] interaction, as employees find other strategies to maintain their privacy; for example by choosing a different communication channel.
But perhaps more specifically, they point out that researchers and employers have yet to come up with a breakthrough that leads to that coveted, vibrant work environment that enhances creativity and collective intelligence. Obviously breaking down real walls is not the way to get there.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B2018. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0239 (About DOIs).