Open-Plan Offices and Employee Communication

Open-plan office space – surely the route to increased colleague interaction and decreased electronic communication?

Well – apparently not. A new study from Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Harvard University suggests that face-to-face interaction reduces by up to 70% and use of email goes up in an open-plan environment. It appears that being in the bosom of our colleagues can all be a bit too much.

Perceived wisdom suggests that if people are working in a shared space they’ll co-operate willingly, network easily and interact productively – so you’d think the open-plan office would be a winner. But, in a recent tracking experiment, it seemed that in walled offices workers spent up to 5.8 hours interacting face to face, but in the open-plan space, this reduced to 1.7 hours. Likewise emails and instant messaging increased both in volume and length. In addition, being physically closer to colleagues did not, as we might expect, increase verbal communication and interaction.

The argument is that people can be overstimulated in an open-plan environment, with too much information, too much distraction and too much wandering around having a negative effect on productivity – which, of course, is concerning for any business.

One possible explanation is that when people have no personal space they may feel introverted rather than gregarious, so they unconsciously try to minimise face to face contact and prefer less personal electronic communication. On the other hand, it may just be that when they can see that people are busy, they don’t interrupt, thinking that receiving an email is more convenient for their swamped colleagues.

Should we stay at home to work smart then? Recent research suggests that the effort we put in tends to be higher when working from home than in any office environment, so is the end of the open plan office nigh? Well hardly: getting rid of open-plan offices is no guarantee of higher productivity as people can work hard or slack off in any environment – so maybe a healthy mixture and a little employee autonomy is the answer.

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