The Way We Work

The Surprising Reason Why an Open Office Space May Not Be Great for Your Company

Companies tear down their walls to encourage collaboration, but this professor's research says doing so doesn't always achieve this outcome.
The Surprising Reason Why an Open Office Space May Not Be Great for Your Company
Image credit: Mint Images | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
6 min read

Editor’s Note: In this series, The Way We Work, Entrepreneur Associate Editor Lydia Belanger examines how people foster productivity, focus, collaboration, creativity and culture in the workplace.

The arrangement of furniture and cubicles within an office can influence productivity in complex ways, depending on a company’s culture and the nature of its work. No one design fits all companies. Just ask Ethan Bernstein.

The Harvard Business School professor’s research conclusions over the years follow a distinct, measured pattern: If leaders at a company are bracing to implement a new management structure or philosophy, they should be aware that the solution could yield a range of effects, including unexpected ones.

This was the case with his study of holacracy, a non-hierarchical organizational structure that some believe foster productivity and engagement, while others call it a naive idea. Bernstein and his colleagues determined that holacracy is neither all good nor all bad: “Organizations can use elements of self-management in areas where the need for adaptability is high, and traditional models where reliability is paramount,” he tells Entrepreneur.com.

Similarly, with transparency in organizations, which tends to be the focus of Bernstein’s research. “Overly transparent work environments, because they leave employees feeling exposed, may produce less-transparent employees who seek to actively conceal what they are doing -- even when making improvements -- thus reducing productivity and, paradoxically, transparency,” he says.

Related: Tour the Clever, Multi-Purpose Office Designed for This Growing Moving Startup

The findings of his most recently published research, on “the impact of the “open” workspace on human collaboration,” are no different. He and co-author Stephen Turban didn’t find open floor plans to boost human interaction, per se, but they’re not saying every wall-free company out there is doing it wrong, either. Overall, the paper might even leave some managers with more questions than answers. But here’s what Bernstein wants them to know about the effects of open office environments: To say open offices are good or bad is to oversimplify.

Bernstein explains that the impetus for a switch to an open office layout is often based on cost, not a desire for increased collaboration, according to his conversations with architects, real estate companies and even managers within companies. An open office allows more people to fit into one area (the walls aren’t taking up space), equating to a decreased cost per square foot. However, managers who think an open office will save their company money while igniting collaboration may be in for a rude awakening.

To study the effects of an open office layout, Bernstein and Turban observed interactions among employees at one Fortune 500 company that was transitioning to an open office from a wall-filled one. During the experiments, employees wore badges with sensors that anonymously tracked their interactions with one another, without recording the content of conversations. Tracking via sensors was meant to eliminate biases or misperceptions that self-reported behavior might not have snuffed out. The co-authors also had access to information about the employees’ email and instant messaging activity (again, anonymized and with the content hidden).

Bernstein and Turban found that, in the open layout, employees interacted face-to-face 72 percent less. Meanwhile, they emailed and messaged amongst themselves 56 percent more, sending more messages and longer messages.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Well, at this particular organization, productivity decreased during this time span, according to the company’s internal performance management system, Bernstein says. He can’t get more specific than that, “due to confidentiality constraints,” but to sum it up, the organization sought more face-to-face interaction for the type of work it needed done, but the result was the opposite.

Past research on workplace transparency by Bernstein and others, such as Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile, has revealed that when people are being observed, they try to live up to the expectations of those observing them -- be it their bosses or their employees. Often, that comes at the expense of creativity, because experimenting with new ideas might get in the way of meeting the expectations of those overseeing the work.

“We typically save our moments of productive deviance for more private, less transparent, spaces,” Bernstein says. This dynamic might explain the uptick in messaging amid open offices. While Bernstein didn’t directly study the impact of open offices on creativity, he acknowledges that these environments might make managers and workers alike feel more exposed and therefore observed. In turn, they might be more apt to present themselves as working diligently rather than shooting the breeze with co-workers.

In some organizations, an office environment that fosters online communication might enable more work to get done, depending on what the work entails, Bernstein notes. One of his other findings from his open office studies was that who spoke with whom changed overall, when offline conversations declined and online conversations rose. He provides the hypothetical example of a global company in which a move to an open office might spark a cultural shift in that face-to-face interaction is less prevalent. This, in turn, might inspire employees to chat with expert colleagues overseas to devise solutions, rather than simply those seated nearby.

“We do have different interaction networks face-to-face and online at work,” he says.

Related: Can't Concentrate in Your Open Office? Try These 3 Things.

Managers might want to intervene a bit, rather than let their employees serendipitously interact, if they want to ensure face-to-face discussions. He suggests that managers “reassess” the open office trend, experimenting with fostering collaboration in various ways.

“For a set of people that you strategically decided need to interact well together,” Bernstein says, “create smaller groups and make sure those smaller groups have opportunities to interact.” These groups might be physically located in a room together (vs. a completely open office among those not on their specific team). The office might foster both openness and privacy. However, Bernstein hasn’t explicitly studied the effects of these potential solutions in open offices -- they’re just educated guesses based on his knowledge of how people work.

“I will leave it to the architects, managers and consultants of the world to come up with a full list of possibilities,” he says, explaining that it’s up to them to do the tinkering to optimize interactions and productivity within open offices. “To me, they are all just calls for future research.”

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