Open Offices Decreasing Face-to-Face Interactions

Open Offices Decreasing Face-to-Face Interaction

An experiment centered on employees in the workplace has determined that open offices are decreasing face-to-face interactions between workers.  

For many businesses, the idea of open offices for a company workplace can mainly be a cost saving exercise. For others, it’s the belief that open office create better collaboration and communication amongst teams. But a new experiment from researchers at Harvard Business School and Harvard University could dispel both rationales as a myth.

The Open Offices Experiment

For both Ethan Bernstein (Harvard Business School) and Stephen Turban (Harvard University) to analyse the effects of open offices on workers, an experiment was organised. The experiment, taking place at the global headquarters of an unnamed Fortune 500 multinational company, recruited 52 employees. The workspace used was a newly fully open-plan area and involved recruits from sales, technology and human resources backgrounds.

To fully measure interactions, each worker was fitted with a ‘sociometric badge’ and a microphone. These were worn by workers for three weeks before the office redesign and again for a couple of months after the refurbishment. As the badges and microphones were Bluetooth enabled, the research team were able to monitor the frequency of employees conducting face-to-face interactions. For purposes of the experiment, both Bernstein and Turban were allowed access to the company’s servers. This meant they could identify changes in the use of email and messaging programmes.

Results of the Experiment

The shift into an open-plan office space for the workers proved to be an impactful one. Both researchers were able to determine that participants in the experiment spent 73% less time making face-to-face interactions. This was in part due to a rapid increase of the use of email and instant messengers. These accounted for 67% and 75% of communication respectively.

Stunned by the increases shown, Bernstein and Turban conducted a second study. This time, it involved 100 employees who again were enlisted to work for a Fortune 500 company. For this phase, both researchers wanted to examine how the overall nature of communication changed once open offices were introduced. Accounting for 1830 examples of communication and conversation, 643 were a reduction of face-to-face interaction once the workspace become an open office. Only 141 showed signs of increased physical interaction.

Conclusively, the pattern of their second experiment followed a similar one to their first. Face-to-face time between colleagues fell by around 70% on average. The use of email increased from between 22% and 50% depending on how it was estimated.

Effects of Transitioning to Open Offices

Adding some further comments on the experiment and the results, the researchers attempted to explain reasoning as to why face-to-face interaction experienced a severe drop once the workplace environment changed to open offices.

“Whilst it is possible to bring chemical substances together under specific conditions of temperature and pressure to form the desired compound, more factors seem to be at work in achieving a similar effect with humans. Until we understand those factors, 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.”


The Royal Society – The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

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Sam Rose

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