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Open offices result in less collaboration among employees

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2018

In a recent study called The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration, a pair of researchers tracked the digital and real life interactions of workers at a company that shifted to an open office plan before and after the shift. Here were the two key findings of the study:

Contrary to what’s predicted by the sociological literature, the 52 participants studied spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face after the shift to an open office layout. To make these numbers concrete: In the 15 days before the office redesign, participants accumulated an average of around 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the switch to the open layout, the same participants dropped to around 1.7 hours of face-to-face interaction per day.

At the same time, the shift to an open office significantly increased digital communication. After the redesign, participants sent 56% more emails (and were cc’d 41% more times), and the number of IM messages sent increased by 67%.

That’s a pretty dramatic shift…and productivity suffered. The authors theorized that the lack of physical boundaries in the open office made constructing social barriers necessary.

Like social insects which swarm within functionally-determined zones ‘partitioned’ by spatial boundaries (e.g. hives, nests or schools), human beings — despite their greater cognitive abilities — may also require boundaries to constrain their interactions, thereby reducing the potential for overload, distraction, bias, myopia and other symptoms of bounded rationality.

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. And yet companies keep doubling down on this…