Do open office designs really benefit employees? Data are showing the opposite.
An open office space encourages cross—functional collaboration, increases exposure to expertise, and accelerates creativity and innovation. At least that's what proponents promise. And about 70 percent of offices in the United States have bought into this idea, according to Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace report.
Many employers have made the move toward less formal layouts—sans walls, doors, and even assigned desks. Organizations like Google, Apple, and IBM have devoted millions of dollars to redesigning their workspaces. They've replaced cubicles and traditional private offices with smaller team spaces and pods for private conversations. Likewise, they've added adjustable furniture that can be easily moved and modified to meet changing work demands.
These companies aren't alone. A new report by Ted Moudis Associates, an architectural and interior design firm, found that 92 percent of workplaces polled are categorized as open workspaces. According to TMA's data, the average square footage per seat dedicated to activity—based projects expanded by 18 feet over a two—year period, and more than half (54 percent) report using alternative seating, which is defined as a seat in the office that isn't assigned to a particular individual and can be used for a variety of work and nonwork—related activities.
Before your company rushes to tear down its walls, leaders should take note of recent studies that report that the open office may not be as productive as promised. For instance, in 2017, enterprise software strategist William Beck conducted a survey of 700 professionals across multiple industries and found that 58 percent of high—performance employees say they need more private spaces for problem solving, and 54 percent of high—performance employees say their office environment is too distracting.
More recently, Harvard University researchers Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban found that face—to—face communication between workers declined by 70 percent after a transition to an open office arrangement, while electronic interactions increased. Their findings, based on two intervention—based field studies of corporate headquarters moving to a more open design, were recently published by the Royal Society in a scientific journal. Using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers, the research examined the impact of open—workspace design on face—to—face, email, and instant messaging interaction among employee populations at two unnamed Fortune 500 multinational companies.
For example, although the primary purpose of opening up the space at one location had been to increase face—to—face interactions, the 52 participants spent 72 percent less time interacting. Prior to the redesign, they accumulated 5,266 minutes of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 5.8 hours of interaction per person, per day. After the redesign, though, those same people accumulated only 1,492 minutes of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 1.7 hours per person, per day. The research found that after the redesign, participants collectively sent 56 percent more emails to other participants over 15 days and received 20 percent more emails from other participants.
"Even though everyone on the floor could see everyone else all the time—or perhaps because they could—virtual interaction replaced face—to—face interaction in the new boundaryless space," explain Bernstein and Turban.
Productivity isn't the only issue. Open office designs can affect overall job satisfaction. A recent study from CTF, Service Research Center at Karlstad University, Sweden, revealed a negative relationship between the number of co—workers sharing an office and employees' job satisfaction.
"The open—plan offices may have short—term financial benefits, but these benefits may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and well—being," notes researcher Tobias Otterbring, assistant professor at Aarhus University. "Decision makers should consider the impact of a given office type on employees rather than focusing solely on cost—effective office layout, flexibility, and productivity."
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