The real reason we have more open-plan offices (mostly in the US and UK) is it’s a lot cheaper per square foot. It’s a way of achieving the smallest footprint per person whilst creating a feeling of space. It’s not about bonding or culture or efficiency.
In Germany and Scandinavia workers have a right to an office because it is seen as a better way to work. And reading up on design thinking for workspaces, it seems that it is less about where the work is done and more about how it’s done, both physically and digitally.
We’ve been told that open-plan offices are designed to increase visibility and encourage more collaboration but if you don’t factor in different types of people and ways of working it can result in a very quiet atmosphere. An environment in which individuals feel self-conscious talking and music fills the silence. Look around and you’ll see plenty of people wearing headphones, introverts withdraw because they are easily distracted and others make an effort to look busy even if they’re not.
“There’s a lot of interest in open offices because so many of us work in them, and we have very strong opinions about them” Ethan Bernstein
Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban studied two Fortune 500 companies who were switching to open-plan offices. By using personal trackers, infrared and sound sensors, they were able to record movement, location, posture, and conversation. The researchers also reviewed any changes in the number of text messages and emails subjects sent. Comparing how employees interacted both before and after the new office design.
“We began with a specific research question: does removing spatial boundaries at work to create open, unbounded offices increase interaction? Our two empirical field studies were consistent in their answer: open, unbounded offices reduce F2F interaction with a magnitude, in these contexts, of about 70%. Electronic interaction takes up at least some of the slack, increasing by roughly 20% to 50% (as measured by ‘To:’ received email).
Many organizations, like our two field sites, transform their office architectures into open spaces with the intention of creating more F2F interaction and thus a more vibrant work environment. What they often get — as captured by a steady stream of news articles professing the death of the open office [71–73] — 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). Recent studies  and earlier research [40,41,43,47,48] have investigated the self-reported dissatisfaction of employees in open offices, but to our knowledge, we are the first to empirically study the direct behavioural impact of open office space on the volume of F2F and electronic interaction. Our results support three cautionary tales.”
“We see a close relationship between our finding that open, ‘transparent’ offices may be overstimulating and thus decrease organizational productivity” Ethan Bernstein
The study was published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B and the finding showed that, as walls came down, so did the number of interactions among co-workers. Simultaneously, the number of emails and text messages went up. Rather than increasing face-to-face collaboration, open spaces appeared to trigger a natural response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact privately using digital channels.
Open space does not necessarily promote open interaction and hot desks might allow someone to bump into new people because they’re temporary neighbours, but once they are at a workstation they stay put. We have a fundamental desire for privacy and there is evidence that privacy increases productivity. When ‘on stage’ employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate. Email and text chat, WhatsApp groups, social media etc.
The move to a digital workspace offers more opportunity. File-sharing and communication tools such as chat, e-mail, and archiving enhance in-person collisions and the ability to gather more ideas from more places. We choose a technology provider with the best collaboration features; we need to think about the investment in a workspace in the same way.
Most experts agree that collisions create positive outcomes and a successful workspace can be measured in different ways:
- exploration (How we interact with other social groups)
- engagement (How we connect with our own social group)
- energy (How we engage with people overall).
Employee performance reviews are based on individual productivity and don’t usually take into consideration how group productivity can grow through more interactions.
Technologists and creatives who were frustrated with standard office space or the isolation of a home office chose to work together, in what is known as co-working spaces. Google’s new campus and the first floor of Amazon’s new campus in Seattle is mostly co-working. People who chose to work in these spaces intentionally seek out like-minded folks. The aim is to create the same community they find online but in a physical environment. Wider social interaction, more innovate approaches to work, and added energy from working with peers. These spaces enhance creativity and divergent thinking.
New spaces encourage new ways of working, such as design sprints promoted by Jake Knapp and Google Ventures. This is when a small multidisciplinary group isolate themselves in a private workspace over five days to maximise decision making and share collective intelligence. At the end of a sprint, the group then take what they’ve learnt back to their part of a business.
My final thoughts aren’t academic but anecdotal. I’ve noticed that people who hotdesk tend to arrive early so that they can choose their neighbours or get close to the influencers. Also, leaders disappear more often, they find excuses to book meeting rooms or go off-site.
It’s a simple human truth that the best parties end up in the kitchen and the same can be said in the office. It’s not just water-cooler moments, other social spaces shouldn’t be underestimated.
And did you know that office workers could lose half a stone a year by standing up at their desks?
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