Study: Open office plans cause us to ‘socially withdraw’

Open office plans get introduced as a seemingly democratic way to break down walls — both literal and metaphoric ones — between team members. Once all the walls become glass and the doors disappear, the thinking goes, teams will be naturally inspired to move and collaborate more face-to-face.

But a new study found that these wide open spaces can actually prompt the opposite reaction in us. When Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban observed an unnamed Fortune 500 company make the switch to an open office plan, they found that workers were retreating to their desks and the privacy of the internet. They began to email more and talk in person less.

“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 [instant messenger],” the researchers wrote.

Open office plans make us socially withdraw into the web to cope

Turns out, removing spatial boundaries creates new social boundaries. The people analytics badges that employees wore tracked fewer face-to-face conversations. Once the walls went down, employees spent 72% less time interacting in person. Before the redesign, employees were meeting face-to-face for about 5.8 hours per person a day. Now, that number had dropped to 1.7 hours per day.

Instead of talking in person, workers were talking online. Participants collectively sent 56% more emails to other employees over 15 days. Virtual interaction was replacing personal face-time. The researchers found that IM message activity increased by 67%. Worse, these interactions were not helping the company’s bottom-line. Executives reported that productivity had, in fact, declined once the redesign had occurred.

Visual transparency forces us to create virtual walls to maintain personal boundaries. When everyone can see everyone, we get surveillance anxiety. This is not the first study to find an unintended side effect of open office plans. One study found that women feel more exposed when offices put transparent glass and large undefined spaces everywhere. That’s the big downside of the open office plan: when your desk can be seen from all angles, it can feel like judging eyes are watching us wherever we go.

“Many organizations … transform their office architectures into open spaces with the intention of creating more [face-to-face] interaction and thus a more vibrant work environment. What they often get … is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them),” the researcher cautioned. “When office architecture makes everyone more observable or ‘transparent’, it can dampen [face-to-face] interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy.”