Like most ideas, it began with the best of intentions: to eliminate the physical walls that divided the workforce; to free employees from cage-like cubicles, ridding them of the perception of corporate solitary confinement; and, ultimately, to promote cross-functional collaboration. This increase in interaction ought to boost employee productivity, favor collective creativity and lead to synergies between different departments, and create a more equitable work environment.
That was the great myth behind the open concept office plan. While the layout has existed since the mid-1960s, its popularity has been rekindled throughout the last 20 years. In 2017, nearly 70 percent of U.S. offices favored minimalistic modular workstations with low or no partitions. In some companies, such as Netflix or Hubspot, even executives and CEOs have forsaken the traditional private corner office. As companies continue to adopt this architectural design, there is little evidence to support the claimed benefits. In fact, recent research points to the opposite: not only does it decrease collaboration, but it also hinders productivity and employee satisfaction.
In 2018, Ethan Berstein and Stephen Turban, two researchers at Harvard University, decided to tackle this argument head-on. They monitored interactions and communications between workers of two Fortune 500 companies who were transitioning from cubicles to open concept office layouts. With the help of ‘Humanyze,’ a workplace analytics company, the researchers were able to collect data through employees’ sociometric ID badges that measured the number of face-to-face interactions, emails, and instant messages between employees. The sociometric badges resembled smartphones but were smaller and lighter. They used GPS, infrared, motion, and audio sensors to monitor conversations in real-time, which allowed them insight into individuals’ interactions, and whether they were participating in one-on-one conversations or group settings. This study was the first experiment to use technology to measure the way employees of two large corporations that transitioned from cubicles to open spaces interacted.
Although the study had a small sample size, the results indicated that the companies that undertook these changes with the intention to promote collaboration between employees, in reality suffered a decrease in face-to-face interaction by as much as 70 percent. Additionally, as face-to-face interaction decreased, employees’ digital communication rose by nearly the same amount, indicating people preferred sending an email rather than speaking to a colleague directly. But that is not all: The study also shows that workers become significantly less productive. In the end, they conclude that instead of fostering more dynamic face-to-face collaboration, open architecture triggers a natural human response that moves away from peers and seeks to replace interaction with others through other means, such as instant messaging.
In addition to this study, there have been several others that have found open offices to be increasingly noisy, perpetuating an environment of persistent distractions for workers. Leeds University Business School professors Matthew Davis, Desmond Leach, and Chris Clegg addressed the toll that open layouts in offices can have on employees. While the goal is to foster seamless collaboration, these layouts can lead to cognitive overload and affect task performance, which can contribute to stress and anxiety. Open office layouts are consistently associated with increased distractions and interruptions, reduced levels of concentration, and lower levels of motivation. The study cited a survey of 38,000 workers, all of whom primarily stated that the most significant losses of productive time during the day stemmed from interruptions from their colleagues.
Now that more than 70 percent of U.S. offices have some version of an open office layout, what are we to do about this issue?
One option is for companies to add more breakout rooms or workbays in the office. Workbays are a slight variation of cubicles, with curvings that wrap around the sides and come up to eye level. They help to minimize distractions and allow employees to focus while giving them a greater sense of privacy. New research indicates an even more practical answer: Empowering employees to choose what solution works best for them.
So Young Lee, a professor at Yonsei University, and Jay Brand, professor of leadership and higher education at Andrews University, performed a study that evidenced the following: Participants forced to work in open spaces claimed to have high levels of distraction and were less satisfied with their work environment. However, the study also states that employees who considered they had personal control over their workspace said they felt higher satisfaction with their work environment, felt closer to their team, and overall had higher job satisfaction. This fulfillment stemmed from their company allowing them the freedom to move and adapt their workspace in accordance to their personal needs.
Allowing employees to decide where and how they want to work offers the flexibility of both open and closed spaces, and it empowers employees to decide when they need to isolate themselves to focus or work together as a team. This idea supports the increasing trend to allow employees to work remotely. Research now indicates thatremote work will equal, if not surpass, fixed locations by 2025. In a survey done by the Global Leadership Summit in London, 34% of business leaders said that more than 50% of their company’s full-time workforce would be working remotely by 2020. An entire 25% said more than three-quarters would not work in a traditional office by 2020.
So, as the workforce landscape continuously changes, why not allow employees to choose which setting works for them? If one seeks to create a culture where employees feel valued, leaders are approachable, and employees can adapt their working environment to their own needs (or telecommute when necessary), then you will have a higher chance of motivating and inspiring a productive and skilled workforce.
Kaufman, L. (2019, March 1). Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/30/google-got-it-wrong-the-open-office-trend-is-destroying-the-workplace/.
Bernstein, Ethan, and Stephen Turban. "The Impact of the 'Open' Workspace on Human Collaboration." Art. 239. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences 373, no. 1753 (August 19, 2018).
Davis, M. C., Leach, D. J., & Clegg, C. W. (2011). The Physical Environment of the Office: Contemporary and Emerging Issues. International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology 2011, 193–237. doi: 10.1002/9781119992592.ch6
Lee, S. Y., & Brand, J. L. (2005). Effects of control over office workspace on perceptions of the work environment and work outcomes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(3), 323–333. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.08.001