Open Offices Make You Less Open


July 6th, 2018 · One comment

On Spatial Boundaries and Face-to-Face Interaction

Why do companies deploy open office layouts? A major justification is the idea that removing spatial boundaries between colleagues will generate increased collaboration and smarter collective intelligence.

As I learned in a fascinating new study, published earlier this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, there was good reason to believe that this might be true. As the study’s authors, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, note:

“[T]he notion that propinquity, or proximity, predicts social interaction — driving the formation of social ties and therefore information exchange and collaboration — is one of the most robust findings in sociology.”

But when researchers turned their attention to the specific impact of open offices on interaction, the results were mixed.  Perhaps troubled by this inconsistency, Bernstein and Turban decided to get to the bottom of this issue.

Prior studies of open offices had relied on imprecise measures such as self-reported activity logs to quantify interactions before and after a shift to an open office plan. Bernstein and Turban tried something more accurate: they had subjects wear devices around their neck that directly measured every face-to-face encounter. They also used email and IM server logs to determine exactly how much the volume of electronic interactions changed.

Here’s a summary of what they found:

  • Contrary to what’s predicted by the sociological literature, the 52 participants studied spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face after the shift to an open office layout. To make these numbers concrete: In the 15 days before the office redesign, participants accumulated an average of around 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the switch to the open layout, the same participants dropped to around 1.7 hours of face-to-face interaction per day.
  • At the same time, the shift to an open office significantly increased digital communication. After the redesign, participants sent 56% more emails (and were cc’d 41% more times), and the number of IM messages sent increased by 67%.

Not surprisingly, this shift from face-to-face to electronic interaction made employees less effective. As Berstein and Turban summarize:

“[In] an internal and confidential management review, [the company’s] executives reported to us qualitatively that productivity, as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the redesign to eliminate spatial boundaries.”

What is surprising, however, is the fact that face-to-face interactions declined so sharply in the first place. My critiques of open offices (c.f., Deep Work) assumed that removing spatial barriers would generate more face-to-face disruptions. In this study, removing barriers instead decreased these interactions while increasing the amount of electronic distraction.

The negative impact is the same — more interruptions = less deep work = poor return on investment in the organization’s attention capital — but the underlying mechanism is not what I expected.

What explains this unexpected result? Here’s an intriguing hypothesis advanced by the study’s authors:

“Like social insects which swarm within functionally-determined zones ‘partitioned’ by spatial boundaries (e.g. hives, nests or schools), human beings — despite their greater cognitive abilities — may also require boundaries to constrain their interactions, thereby reducing the potential for overload, distraction, bias, myopia and other symptoms of bounded rationality…”

When you remove any semblance of structure to human interaction, people get overloaded and withdrawal into private, electronic cocoons.

This is just one study concerning one company and only 52 employees. But it underscores a conclusion that I’ve increasingly come to believe: when it comes to the main challenge of knowledge work, which is figuring out how to get the most value out of human brains working together to process information, we still have no idea what we’re doing.

(Hat tip: Masha.)


An unrelated administrative note: The cover and summary of my next book, Digital Minimalism (due out in February),  just made its way to Amazon. Obviously, I’ll tell you more about this project as the publication date gets closer.


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