Are Open-Plan Offices Really The Way Forward?

Perfect for boosting employee performance or total productivity killer? Science has its say

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By Vaibhav Joshi

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From group outings to team building exercises, most companies all over the world are always trying out new initiatives in an effort to improve teamwork among their employees. While some of them catch on, others aren't as successful. One such method that has become quite popular of late has been open-plan offices, and the jury is still out on whether it has been a success or not.

The Idea Behind Open Plan Offices

By tearing down the physical walls that divided the workspace into cubicles and private offices companies intended to bring down the metaphorical walls between their employees, thus increasing communication and fostering an environment of collaboration in the office. The idea was that with more easy access to their colleagues, office workers would interact more and work would get done more efficiently.

The Surprising Drawbacks

While it sounds quite easy and achievable in theory, the reality doesn't quite reflect it. In fact, studies have made a strong case against open office plans, claiming that they're actually a hindrance to collaboration and teamwork. A study entitled "The impact of the "open' workspace on human collaboration' published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences in July used empirical evidence rather than self-reported data to prove that point.

The study was conducted in the offices of an unnamed Fortune 500 company. Its employees wore people analytics badges that tracked conversations through sensors which gave the researchers data that they then compared against changes in online communication. Rather than an increase in communication and collaboration, the researchers found that conversations via email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly after the open office redesign. For most employees, face-to-face interaction decreased and overall productivity also took a hit.

Facts And Figures

Before the switch to the open office plan, employees had been meeting face to face for nearly 5.8 hours per person over three weeks. That number went down to 1.7 hours after the redesign, with participants spending 72 per cent less time interacting in person in the open space. Email traffic increased dramatically, with employees sending 56 per cent more emails to other participants in the study. IM messages increased as well, both in terms of messages sent and total word count (67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively).

Interestingly, this study showed that it's not just a case of people taking their interactions online as soon as spatial boundaries disappeared. Instead, they began emailing more with some people and communicating less with others, which suggests that an open office can reconfigure employee networks, which has an impact on the way teams work.

Why This Happens

The researchers put their surprising results down to the fact that people feel they're on display when engaged in creative tasks. That's why part of their mind is preoccupied with social pressures—knowing that others are watching limits the degree to which workers might creatively solve a problem and therefore be more productive. In other words, the workers worry more about looking busy than concentrating on the job at hand. "While it is possible to bring chemical substances together under specific conditions of temperature and pressure to form the desired compound, more factors seem to be at work in achieving a similar effect with humans," the researchers said in summation.

This was backed up by an earlier study involving workers in a Chinese factory. Entitled "The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control', it was published in Administrative Science Quarterly in June 2012. The factory operated several identical assembly lines spaced closely together to allow managers to improve operations and replicate innovations on one line across others by watching workers closely, thus increasing productivity and driving down production costs. However, the researchers found the reverse to be true as productivity slowed down when the manager was watching and picked back up again when the workers were unsupervised.

"We assume that when we can see something, we understand it better," said lead author Ethan S. Bernstein. "In this particular environment, and perhaps many others, what managers were seeing wasn't real. It was a show being put on for an audience. When the audience was gone, the real show went on, and that show was more productive."

Health Benefits

Open office plans might be productivity killers, but it's not all bad. Recent research suggests that this working arrangement comes with health benefits for the employees. According to research published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine in September 2018, this layout is linked to higher levels of physical activity while at work, and lower levels of stress outside the office.

The researchers recruited 231 US government workers from four different sites and three different types of office environment. Data from the heart sensors and physical activity monitors that they all wore showed that workers in open-plan offices with open bench configurations were 20 per cent more physically active than workers in cubicles and 32 per cent more active than those in private offices. Higher levels of physical activity were also linked with lower stress levels outside the workplace. "Given the importance of physical activity to health, the fact that office workstation type may influence how much people move at work should not be overlooked in the health field," write the researchers.

Vaibhav Joshi

Entrepreneur Staff

Features Writer, Entrepreneur Asia-Pacific

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