These Harvard researchers say open offices are productivity killers

When open offices came into vogue, they were supposed to promote productivity and collaboration among co-workers. And yet recent research suggests they do just the opposite.

In an article published by Royal Society, Harvard researchers outline two recent studies they conducted that mean bad news for all the companies that have opted for an open office plan.

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Harvard professor found two Fortune 500 multinationals with intentions to redesign their office spaces. They monitored workers on floors that were getting a makeover to replace cubicles with more open areas by having them wear sensors to track how many face-to-face interactions they had before and after the transformation.

Bernstein and Turban also measured electronic communication — emails and instant messaging — by using information that each organization provided to them. The first study took place over three week periods before and after the office redesign, and the second study was conducted similarly but over two eight week periods.

Open = bad

What Bernstein and Turban found would likely dissuade any CEO from adopting a more open model.

“Contrary to common belief,” they write, “the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.”

Bernstein and Turban hypothesize that part of the transition to digital communication is a desire to preserve privacy in an environment that’s more exposed. It’s also easy enough in an open office to look over and see that someone’s at their desk to receive an email, they write.

Participants in the first study sent 56% more emails to other participants after their office space was converted.  They also received more emails. Results from the second study indicated a similar trend.

Meanwhile, executives from the first multinational company reported a decline in productivity after the redesign — the antithesis of what had been intended. When employees went against conventional wisdom and spent less face-to-face time as their office layout became more open, the organization suffered for it.

Bernstein and Turban’s research marks a breakthrough in understanding open offices, as they used an empirical model to back their claims instead of relying on subjective surveys or observations as most past studies have done. And so their conclusions signal an even starker reality for the open office.

The future of work may not look like broad open spaces after all. Instead, it appears that the companies who took a gamble on the open office design may have lost the bet. So will we all be returning to cubicles, or is remote work the next big trend? Only time will tell.

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