New Proof the Open Office Concept is Ineffective

Few people like an open office floor plan, and a new study suggests its design has little effect on how we work.

The theory of open office plans is that the humans occupying such spaces will become more collaborative, and increase their face-to-face interactions. It’s a utopian thought; instead of crouching behind our monitors, we’re supposed to be laughing and sharing quips (and work info) with friends at each others’ desks.

That’s just not how any of this works, though. The study, published by Royal Society Publishing, used a badge (the “sociometric” badge, if you’re curious) with a microphone, infrared sensor, accelerometer, and bluetooth capabilities. This badge helped researchers discover how people in open offices actually interacted and worked. The team was also allowed to view metadata from company email servers for study participants (i.e., metrics such as volume of email sent).

The sociometric badge used the microphone to determine if the person wearing it was actually interacting with others, though it didn’t record the content of conversations; the infrared sensor interfaced with sensors on other badges to learn if two participants were standing face-to-face, suggesting they were interacting. Accelerometers captured body movement and posture, while bluetooth handled spatial location.

The sociometric badge
The sociometric badge used to measure open office behavior.

 

This research involved two field studies, both at Fortune 500 multinational companies that underwent a redesign that brought down office walls and opened space up to cubicles. Thanks to that transition, researchers were able to get a before-and-after look at how open offices affect workers.

They found face-to-face interactions decreased roughly 70 percent as the office opened up, writing: “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.”

Participants send 56 percent more email, received 20 percent more email, and were cc:’d on 41 percent more email. Instant message (IM) use increased 75 percent (this metric counted words, so people sent 75 percent more words via IM). As researchers stated: “In boundaryless space, electronic interaction replaced F2F interaction.”

But we knew this would happen, didn’t we? In 2016, we wrote those working in an open office should “seek refuge” and email coworkers who might ask to speak face-to-face too often. Separate surveys show we’re just not open to the idea of open offices.

For many, open offices aren’t even a concept tolerable in flashy jobs. Facebook’s massive open office concept was widely panned as a step too far, and Apple’s own ‘spaceship’ campus was reportedly hated by its engineering teams.

At this juncture, we have to wonder if companies will get wise and start offering proper offices again. People seem to hate the idea of open offices, and we now have empirical data showing we don’t work better or differently in an open environment.

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19 Responses to “New Proof the Open Office Concept is Ineffective”

  1. EVERYONE needs a private space. Not just to have meetings but I mean no cubicles. In other words, an office.

    EVERYONE needs an office. Stop telling your workers that they need to be visible to one another.

    Don’t set up ranking for offices. In other words, stop restricting office space to managers only.

    EVERYONE NEEDS AN OFFICE.

  2. Jeremy

    Little surprise to the IXTX types. It was always a bad idea as engineers and developers expend most of their energy on the real value (product) of the company. To many socializing is far less important.

    It only became important when shareholders and social animals invaded the profession. Yes they need constant interaction to be happy. IXTX do not.

  3. William Terdoslavich

    I’ve worked in open offices before. They were called “newsrooms”. We still got the newspaper out every day, regardless of how people felt about this type of office.

    I’ve also worked in places where everyone had an office. They could be conducive to collaboration and creativity, provided you had a “commons” where workers would bump into each other. Such places could be coffee rooms/kitchens or the shared printer that all had to use.

    I doubt companies will shell out extra rent money to give each person some office space. Office rents in Manhattan are averaging close to $70 a square foot. A 10×10 office will cost $7,000 per month. Does your employee bring in that much revenue (in sales or production) to justify that cost?

    A better compromise might be shared spaces that workers are free to configure. Give people some control over their work lives and they might give you the extra effort you are depending on.

    • James Spurr

      First, office rent space per square foot is typically annual, so $70/SF is $7000/yr for 10×10. (~$585/mo) Second, even if it were $7k/ mo, if a company can’t afford the rent for proper space in Manhattan, it should relocate.

    • Paul Allen

      You’re not an engineer are you?

      As a matter of fact, I, and other engineers, do justify that kind of money. I personally have landed the company I worked for multiple $5M contracts on my work alone. That’s over $400,000 per month. Often, the executives do not directly contribute to revenue, so as far as the cost of an office, are they worth it? In reality, of course they are, because they need the quiet and privacy of an office to do business. An engineer needs silence and focus to get their work done. I worked on an open floor once and the noise – ringing phones, people talking too loud, hustle and bustle all around – is not conducive to focused concentration on complex engineering problems.

      Having worked my way from the bottom of the ladder to the top, I have found in every company I’ve worked for, that the bulk of the money that is made is not generated from the executives at the top. It’s generated from the bottom up to the middle, and those people should be treated well (within reason) and not to be discounted. I personally saw a company go out of business because they laid off all those that did the work (and knew how to make the product) because of the arrogance that came from believing those low-paid individuals were expendable and not worth as much as those on the upper part of the corporate ladder. I was one of those let go and called back to help get product produced and out the door. I told the company I wanted to be paid a decent wage for my work as the obviously needed me (and others they had let go). Within six months of refusing, the went belly up because they had lost the actual productive workforce they had.

  4. Dinosaur_Mainframer

    Our company started removing our cubicles and introduced an open office concept. It failed miserably! We are programmers and need a private space so we can concentrate. But we ended up chatting with other employees and exchange jokes and have a good time. Productivity dropped to lowest on record. I was so distracted that I took a lot of work home and it affected my personal life. Close to 75% of employees hated this concept but our managers kept this format to prove they were right. But when things hit the fan, they realized what a huge mistake it was. We slowly put the cubicles back in place but so far they have done it for 20% of staff. Everybody wants their cubicles back!

  5. Dave Robinson

    When working I need an area of my desk to allow me to concentrate without distracting background and conversations. The open office space I worked in during my last contract provided none of the above. This caused distractions that impacted my productivity. It may look cool, but it does not allow people to concentrate on the tasks they need to accomplish during the day. Additionally, I sometimes did not like what my neighbors had for dinner the night before. If you catch my drift.

  6. I am an engineer, and I prefer the open office concept. I think that I may be an exception as My coworkers get easily distracted by any sort of commotion in an open office

    I like the openness because I will reach out face to face and generally prefer this over instant messaging; I also do not like an environment that feels closed off.

    To each his/her own, right?

    I just don’t fully understand why an open space would increase lack of interaction – was there feedback from the employees? I’d be interested to see what the controls were, like if workload increased.. etc

  7. I work for a small digital marketing company and in a effort to attract younger talent our offices are being rennovated to an open office floor plan which will include a ping pong table.YAY . Nobody asked for this, nobody wants it and nobody is excited. Idk why people think that this will help attract new talent. As a millennial I can tell you flexible work schedules and more vacation time is what attracts me to a company

  8. Michael

    I agree with Paul about the product programmers and engineers needing quiet, however the one group that seems to thrive in this environment are those that sell the product. I’ve found that good sales people are catered to more often than those in product development and I can understand why but the difficulty of product development or support isn’t really understood so everyone is put into the same box. Give me a basement floor office with no distractions and I’m happy.

  9. I’ve seen open offices work–but not cheaply. I work for a company with an open office plan that works exactly as planned, with wide acceptance. But the space allotted each employee is greater than that of a cubicle. Amenities and customization’s like standing desks are provided and every new employee gets a great set of sound blocking head phones. Desks are personalized, sometimes flamboyantly. The culture encourages cooperation and ownership in dozens of other ways, discourages the mad dash for a deadline at the expense of cooperation or quality.

    This has worked for 15 years at a successful, profitable, constantly growing company with low turnover. But simply decreasing space and walls per employee, with no culture changes? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just pretty words to justify saving money.

  10. Sequencentropy

    My employer tried to push me (network eng) into it several years ago and luckily it got so much pushback they killed the initiatives. Here’s my top gripes:
    1.) I’m an engineer, in working sessions/ virtual collab environment all day. Is it just me or is there an echo in here?… nevermind, it’s you.
    2.) If people see that I’m not busy, they will think that gives them cart blanche to “collaborate” (read: talk about their kids, which I don’t give a fraction of a flying eff about).
    3.) It forces overstimulation and overwhelms people (specifically intro/ambi -verts) who are trying to absorb and process the stimuli. Train-of-thought has officially left the building.
    4.) If someone decides telling me about their mediocre brats soccer game is more important than whatever query I’m trying to write script for, than it is…
    5.) Large corpos nickel-and-dime merit for folks who aren’t top contributors… but then counterproductivity their workforce into a corner. What a joke.

    While I can see that this type of setup could be beneficial for select groups (like sales teams), the deficiencies are substantial for everyone who has to use their brain to analyze and fix complex and difficult problems on the regular. If we have to choose one, I choose privacy.

  11. The last company I worked for unwittingly conducted an experiment on open offices when we moved to the new headquarters building. In our previous location, most of us had private offices and we had plenty of face to face interactions even on different floors. In the new building, only managers and above had offices. The rest of us had cubicles and though they were nice and functional, face to face interactions dropped significantly, to the company’s upper management’s chagrin. And some of the findings mentioned in the article also occurred to us, more back and forth emails, IM chats, etc. It would have been more productive to engage in face to face conversations to take care of business but it just didn’t happen.

  12. Software engineers and open offices go together like oil and vinegar. As soon as you mix them together they want to separate. I worked at one company that converted to an open office and now that company has lost half of its engineers (including myself), and that company is in financial trouble. Software engineers need peace and quiet. Open offices are the most distracting environment imaginable. This study is correct, I had a coworker sitting across the aisle from me who would send me questions on instant messenger when I was 10 feet away. I have worked at three companies that have open offices. I would say that productivity is about 30 percent of what it should be in an open office.

  13. Look at the overall picture. It’s not normal to place human beings in offices, cubicles, or conference rooms. It’s not normal to sit or stand all day at desks and stress out over projects and deadlines. It’s not normal be inundated by email and other information overload. It’s not normal to be in endless meetings with no purpose. It’s not normal to commute for hours to work or be stuck in traffic jams. It’s not normal to place human beings in high stress environments we know this just doesn’t work. It causes fatigue, sickness and mental anguish and in the long term hypersensitivity to everything and everyone in your environment. That’s why you crave vacation time, away from it all or just call in sick.

  14. I don’t believe for one second that the “Open Office” concept was ever truly about encouraging collaboration. That was a clever bit of marketing to try and sell the idea to individual contributors that were losing their offices in remodels.

    The reality is that it’s about cost. Hard walls cost more to put up and cost more to reconfigure than cubicle furniture. Most hard wall offices end up being furnished with modular furniture anyway, but each hard wall office needs an individual power feed for the cubicle furniture, individual network fees for the furniture, etc., further increasing the cost of installation/reconfiguration.

    Cubicles are dirt cheap compared to hard wall offices, so the corporate overlords love ’em. Any other possible benefit (or detriment) is regarded as a side issue from the facilities management perspective.

  15. Jen Entonic

    The “open office” concept is idiotic… no, it’s BEYOND idiotic. If you want to attract Millennial talent (or any other talent, for that matter) save yourself some money and follow a 3 point plan:

    (1) Work From Home (WFH). Join the 21st century and stop believing that your IT job can ONLY be performed onsite;

    (2) If you’re too deeply rooted in 19th or 20th century management, at least offer flexible work schedules to your employees;

    (3) Vacation time is vastly more important to attract talent than asinine “open office spaces” (or the next managerial fad du jour).

  16. I’ve been in several open office environments, and they’ve all been terrible. It’s amazing how fast this stupidity spread. So much time is wasted trying to find people, trying to find places to have confidential discussions, etc. And the idea that sitting in a different area every day with random new people is supposed to foster creative thinking is ridiculous when you really need to concentrate to get work done. And no stranger ever even said hello to me. Stupidity!

  17. I have worked in corporate and government offices for many years, and the first thing to go in an “open” environment is openness. However, casual chitchat does seem to rise, as today I had a neighbor keep trying to show me video of her supercute (actually normal and loud) grandbaby, plus collectibles. “Open” means you can’t blow your nose in privacy, or have a snack without someone commenting, or concentrate on a vital report or a bit of research because everyone has “a quick question”.