Open offices may actually reduce face-to-face interaction

A new Harvard University study suggests that open offices might actually be less conducive to face-to-face interaction than thought.

It's all about the open-office environment these days. But a new study from Harvard University researchers has found that there is actually less face-to-face interaction in these, compared to "walled" offices.

Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban conducted two different field studies of corporate headquarters, involving two different Fortune 500 multinational corporations in the US.

The companies were chosen as they were transitioning from walled offices to modern-style open office layouts.

Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban conducted two different field studies of corporate headquarters, involving two different Fortune 500 multinational corporations.

The companies were chosen as they were transitioning from environment with walls or cubicles to modern-style open office layouts.

Employees from across multiple departments -- including sales, finance, and HR -- were studied for eight weeks before and after the transition.

In the first company, which went from a walled office to open office layout, employees spent more than 4 hours less time having face-to-face interaction.

Instead, they ended up spending more time (56%) on electronic communication such as e-mail or instant messaging.

Moreover, productivity "as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the redesign to eliminate spatial boundaries", according to Bernstein and Turban.

In the second company, which went from cubicles to an open office, face-to-face interactions went down by 67%. E-mail communication also went up.

The researchers suggest that their results could be due to open offices being "overstimulating".

It’s also worth noting that while open office layouts may be great for extroverts, it may not be the most productive environment for introverts and people who work better in isolation.

"Until we understand [the factors that produce an equilibrium of productivitiy and collaboration], 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," concluded the researchers.

Further Reading: The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

 

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