No walls, less interaction

The open office of the new Facebook campus, known as Building 20, in Menlo Park, California.
The open office of the new Facebook campus, known as Building 20, in Menlo Park, California.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

A recently published paper shows that open-plan offices tend to lower face-to-face interaction among employees

NEW YORK • Has your boss given walls and cubicles in the office the boot?

In recent years, a number of big companies - IBM, Bank of America, Aetna - have cut back on telecommuting programmes in favour of more interaction between employees in an office.

The business model of companies designing co-working spaces, such as WeWork, is also based on the idea that if people are in a shared space, they will network more.

It does not quite work like that, though, recent research shows.

In a just-published paper, Harvard University's Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban showed, on the basis of two field studies of corporate headquarters, that the modern open-office architecture tends to decrease face-to-face interaction by 70 per cent and increase electronic communication.

The two companies studied, both Fortune 500 multinationals, were transitioning to more open, modern office environments.

One of them removed all the walls on one of its office floors. The researchers fitted workers from functions as varied as sales, technology, finance and human resources with tracking devices for 15 days before and 15 days after they moved from walled offices to the new type.

In the "walled" period, the employees spent an average of 5.8 hours a day interacting face to face. In the open space, that shrank to 1.7 hours. They ended up sending 56 per cent more e-mails.

The second company was moving from cubicles to an open-space design for its entire international headquarters. This decreased face-to-face interactions by 67 per cent and boosted e-mail traffic.

The authors did not psycho-analyse their results.

But one explanation is that placing people in an enormous fish tank in which they have no personal space makes people cringe rather than make them more gregarious.

The corporate world pushes extroversion on people, most often through a relentless meetings culture. Some find that not only uncomfortable, but they also unconsciously try to minimise human contact and resort to less personal electronic communication.

There could be other explanations. For example, it is easy to see in an open space that someone is busy, so people may be reluctant to interrupt a colleague in the middle of a pressing task.

But no matter what is going on psychologically, the changes in the communication mix can hurt the business.

Mr Bernstein and Mr Turban noted that the first company's executives reported to them "that productivity, as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the redesign to eliminate spatial boundaries".

For bigger companies that value human interaction and old-school face-to-face collaboration, eliminating open-plan offices altogether is not the answer, of course.

 

There is no indication that people are working less productively or effectively just because there is less face-to-face rapport. Quite the opposite might be true.

Many employers already offer flexi-work so that employees can work from home at times.

There is no academic research yet into what such a mixed arrangement would do to the quantity and quality of interactions.

Modern technology allows employers to test out all the options using the same kind of equipment as Mr Bernstein and Mr Turban. If the goal is to maximise productivity, they should do it rather than rely on intuition and anecdotal evidence.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2018, with the headline 'No walls, less interaction'. Print Edition | Subscribe