Are you deciding to convert your current office space into an open concept design? If so, you might want to give a second thought.
Latest study funded by Harvard Business School and published by the Royal Society Publishing in 2018 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239) suggested that face-to-face interactions decreased about 70 percent as the office opened up; as opposed to increased face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from colleagues and interact over email and instant messaging instead.
This research was conducted in the form of field studies with the help from two Fortune 500 multinational companies that underwent an office space redesign which brought down walls and opened space up to cubicles. Thanks to that transition, researchers could get a before-and-after look at how open offices affect workers.
Data were collected in two separate phases: for 15 workdays (three weeks) before the redesign and, roughly three months later after the redesign, for another 15 workdays. Three-week data collection windows were chosen as a balance between the organization's desire to minimize the burden of the research study on its employees and the need to control for the possibility of idiosyncratic daily and weekly variations in employee schedules.
Workers of these two companies were made to wear a “sociometric badge”. Each of these badges come with a microphone, infrared sensor, accelerometer, and Bluetooth capabilities. This badge helped researchers discover how people in open offices interacted and worked. The research team was also allowed to view metadata from company email servers for study participants (i.e., metrics such as the volume of email sent).
This sociometric badge used a microphone to determine if the person wearing it was interacting with others even though it didn’t record the content of conversations. The infrared sensor interfaced with sensors on other badges to learn if two participants were standing face-to-face, suggesting they were interacting. Accelerometers captured body movement and posture, while Bluetooth handled spatial location.
These two independent field studies were consistent in pointing out that open, unbounded offices reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70%. Electronic interaction takes up at least some of the slack, increasing by roughly 20% to 50% (as measured by “To:” received email). On average, employees in these companies sent 56 percent more email, received 20 percent more email, and were cc-ed on 41 percent more email during the studies. Instant messaging use increased 75 percent (this metric counted words, so people sent 75 percent more words via instant messaging)
The findings are consistent with our human desire for privacy; when office architecture makes everyone more observable or “transparent”, it can dampen face-to-face interaction. Employees will also start to find other strategies to preserve their privacy; like choosing a different channel of communication such as instant messaging or email.
However, not all is lost if you are currently working in an open office environment. Simple fixes like bigger lunch tables in the pantry/cafeteria or having a playroom can boost productivity and improve socializing at work.