Open Offices are a Disaster

An inflammatory headline from Inc.com caught my eye:

It’s Official: Open Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time

The subtitle proclaims “[a] new study from Harvard reveals that open plan offices decrease rather than increase face-to-face collaboration.”

From the article (by Geoffrey James):

a new study from Harvard showed that when employees move from a traditional office to an open plan office, it doesn’t cause them to interact more socially or more frequently.

Instead, the opposite happens. They start using email and messaging with much greater frequency than before. In other words, even if collaboration were a great idea (it’s a questionable notion), open plan offices are the worst possible way to make it happen.

Previous studies of open plan offices have shown that they make people less productive, but most of those studies gave lip service to the notion that open plan offices would increase collaboration, thereby offsetting the damage.

The Harvard study, by contrast, undercuts the entire premise that justifies the fad. And that leaves companies with only one justification for moving to an open plan office: less floor space, and therefore a lower rent.

But even that justification is idiotic because the financial cost of the loss in productivity will be much greater than the money saved in rent. Here’s an article where I do the math for you. Even in high-rent districts, the savings have a negative ROI.

More important, though–if employees are going to be using email and messaging to communicate with co-workers, they might as well be working from home, which costs the company nothing.

In fact, work-from-home actually saves money because then employees can live in areas where housing is more affordable, which means you can pay them a smaller salary than if you force them to live in, say, a high-rent district like Santa Clara, California.

Sadly, James never links to the Harvard study upon which the article is based, nor does he even mention the names of the paper authors. Which is obnoxious. I believe that this is the paper on the study:

The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

The paper is open access from the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Here’s the citation because I’m not a shmoo:

Bernstein, Ethan S., and Stephen Turban. “The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373, no. 1753 (August 19, 2018): 20170239. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239.

Here’s the abstract:

Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes. In two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, we empirically examined—using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers—the effect of open office architectures on employees’ face-to-face, email and instant messaging (IM) interaction patterns. Contrary to common belief, 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. This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture. The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.

Emphases mine, of course. This open-office fad appears to be a wonderful example of a bunch of idiots committing to a vaguely plausible idea without any evidence and having it backfire totally. The correct next step in the healing process would be for the original proponents and their disciples to be gently and publicly shamed so that everyone learns something from this. I doubt that this will happen, though.

I believe this happens all the time in the political arena, but it is rarely possible to conduct controlled experiments to verify the outcomes, so nothing is learned.

Some supplementary links:

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