Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Open Offices Result in Less Collaboration Among Employees

Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban (via Dan Luu):

Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM. This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture. The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.

Drew Harry:

The social norms in any open plan office I’ve been in is to not talk in person because you’ll distract the 20 people in earshot. But good luck finding a nearby open room, so Slack is now worth $5B.

Jason Kottke:

This jibes with my experience working in open offices. For almost 10 years, I worked in an open office plan at Buzzfeed. In the beginning, when there were just a few of us, the level of IRL interaction was high. But as the number of people in the office increased past a certain point, people spent more and more time at their desks, headphones on, ignoring everything but their screens.

Previously: Apple Park’s Open Work Spaces.

Update (2018-07-17): Bad Uncle Leo:

Open offices ONLY WORK in cultures where they’ve been used for decades. I’ve worked in Japan and Germany where smaller groups or product team groups were sequestered. From each other.

“Open but only” offices work.

“Open w everyone” (Engineering + QA + Marketing) are chaos.

Update (2018-07-19): See also: Reddit (via David Heinemeier Hansson).

Update (2018-07-20): Jena McGregor (via Lydia Polgreen):

In an open office workplace, said study co-author and Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein in a recent interview, “I walk into this space, and I see everyone wearing big headphones staring intently at a screen trying to look busy because everyone can see them.” The result can be that “instead of interrupting people, I’ll send an email.”


Bernstein hopes the research will offer empirical evidence that will help managers consider the possible trade-offs of moving to an open office plan. In seeking a lower cost per square foot, they buy into the idea that it will also lead to more collaboration, even if it’s not clear that’s true.

Update (2018-10-12): Geoffrey James (via Steven Sinofsky):

Last week, Tom Gimbel, the founder and CEO of LaSalle Network (a Chicago-based job recruiting firm) fired a broadside at my recent post explaining why open plan offices are the dumbest management fad of all time.

While I respect anyone who is courageous enough to found and run a successful company--especially in such a competitive field as recruiting--I’m afraid that on this issue Gimbel is viewing the situation through CEO-colored glasses.

Geoffrey James (tweet):

Pixar under Steve Jobs was famously creative and innovative. What’s not so famous is that Jobs tried, and rejected, the classic open plan, opting instead for individual offices combined with large areas without desks or work areas.


Rather than stick everyone in a huge room (as with 99.9% of open plan designs), Pixar created units consisting of five to six individual offices with a central gathering place in the middle. Employees are free to decorate and ornament these individual offices however they like.

3 Comments RSS · Twitter

When we switched to a large open office space, people switched to working from home. It's hilarious, when I go to the office (which is not often, since I need to get actual work done, so I do it in my private office at home), it's half empty now most of the time (but, astonishingly, still very noisy). Also not very conducive to IRL interactions.

> Open offices ONLY WORK in cultures where they’ve been used for decades

I've never seen any kind of real study or scientific research that suggests that there are any situations in which open offices work better than any of the alternatives. I'd like to see those data, if there are any.

Noise and overall audio-distractions were the main issue for me, but other than that I felt that open is helpful.
There should be something in between one big open space and offices and cubicles are not the answer. I'd say open with enough distance and objects, like an indoor pseudo forest of items, with spots for people.

> There should be something in between one big open space and offices

Why? Studies seem to consistently show that offices are the best option.

> cubicles are not the answer

Cubicles combine the downsides of open offices with the claustrophobic cruelty of battery cage poultry farming.

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