Want your business to be a success? Most top companies will tell you that facilitating effective collaboration is key to achieving big things. In fact, businesses across all industries continually strive to improve communication among workers so new ideas can be born.
In recent years, this worthy goal of improving information exchange has led to a revolution in office design in the form of the open office. Across America, companies have torn down walls, built big open spaces, and designed work environments to make it easier than ever for staff members to talk.
But what's been the effect of all of these open spaces? A series of new studies suggest that open workspaces aren't all they're cracked up to be. In fact, opening up offices may actually have the effect of decreasing communication and hurting productivity rather than helping it.
Open offices decrease face-to-face communication
Embracing the open-office concept, one Fortune 500 multinational organization made a full floor with no boundaries in its new corporate headquarters. A total of 52 employees -- including executives and staff from tech, sales, pricing, finance, HR, and product development -- agreed to be guinea pigs for researchers aiming to measure the impact.
All participating workers moved to the floor without walls at the same time. For both 15 days before and 15 days after, they donned sensors measuring frequency of face-to-face communications. Although the study was carefully timed so interactions were measured at the same point in the quarter, staff members in open space spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face, while email and IM communication rose sharply -- 56% more emails were sent and messaging activity rose 67%.
Researchers believe the rise in email use was prompted by a desire to avoid face-to-face interactions others could observe. Sadly, emails have deficiencies that face-to-face communication doesn't have. So the decline in face-to-face time had exactly the results you'd imagine: Executives confirmed that internal metrics showed a fall in productivity after the office redesign.
Open offices also change who employees talk to
A follow-up study with a different Fortune 500 company over a longer period of time confirmed the research of the first. The follow-up included much more information, including details on the gender of the workers, the members of their respective teams, and the physical distance between staff members before and after an open-office redesign.
This time, 100 employees were tracked, and they spent between 67% and 71% less time interacting face-to-face in open offices, while emailing between 22% and 50% more.
The data also showed something surprising: While employees sitting close to each other talked to each other slightly more, the impact wasn't as substantial as expected. Yet even as employees increasingly switched over to talking via email, the impact of increased proximity on face-to-face communications was twice as large as the impact on email interactions. This led researchers to conclude that changing to open plans not only reduced face-to-face conversation in general but also altered which workers communicated with each other.
Time to fire architects suggesting open office space?
The downsides of open office space are clear: An absence of space for private communication decreases collaboration. Open spaces also have been shown to be overstimulating and distracting, while pressuring employees to look busy because they feel they're being watched.
Yet there's one argument to be made for open office spaces: The cost per square foot is typically lower. If cost is a major concern, some organizations have successfully mitigated downsides with techniques including allowing employees to spend some time working from home or emphasizing in their corporate cultures the need to communicate openly rather than privately.
For most companies, however, the risk of lost productivity due to a decline in face-to-face time is too big of a downside to overlook. Putting the walls back up likely should be a top priority.