Study: Open office plans hamper communication, productivity

For all our online flair and digital attention seeking, we still prefer a bit of privacy on the job. New research shows why workplace walls still matter.

Open office floor plans stymie productivity

For many people, a little bit of workplace social interaction goes a long way.

Despite our penchant for peace and quiet, businesses continue to wage wars on workplace walls. Dismantling cubicles in the pursuit of more collaboration, teamwork and togetherness sounds enticing, but evidence is mounting that privacy is more conducive to productivity.

Nextgov writes about a recent study conducted by Harvard professor Ethan Bernstein, which fastidiously tracked employee communication at an organization transitioning into an open office setting. Instead of creating a workplace thrumming with seamless connectivity and conversation, the study found that the office redesign resulted in fewer face-to-face conversations. Productivity and creativity dropped, too.

As Nextgov reports:

In two studies, the researchers found that conversations by email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly after the office redesign, while productivity declined, and, for most people, face-to-face interaction decreased. Participants in the first study spent 72 percent less time interacting in person in the open space. Before the renovation, employees had met face to face for nearly 5.8 hours per person over three weeks. In the after picture, the same people held face-to-face conversations for only about 1.7 hours per person.

These employees were emailing and IM-ing much more often, however, sending 56 percent more email messages to other participants in the study. This is how employees sought the privacy that their cubicle walls once provided, the authors reason. IM messages soared, both in terms of messages sent and total word count, by 67 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

Somebody’s watching me…

Do you tend to perform better while being watched or in a more private setting? Bernstein posits that “social pressures” and feeling “on display” at work might cause us to work harder—or at least create the appearance of doing so—instead of working smarter. Forced collaboration tends to stymie productivity, too.

The key, according to Bernstein, is striking a healthy balance of workplace interaction. As Nextgov writes:

Bernstein believes the new study reinforces an existing argument that says intermittent social interactions, rather than constant ones, optimize our ability to work out complex problems. Spatial boundaries, he writes, help people “make sense of their environment by modularizing it, clarifying who is watching and who is not, who has information and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who controls what and who does not, to whom one answers and to whom one does not.”

Learn more about Bernstein’s research here and here.

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