Research: Open Plan Offices Might Be Hurting Employee Productivity

August 9, 2018

Open plan offices are meant to increase employee collaboration, but raise your hand if you’ve ever stepped into an open office that sounded as quiet as a morgue. It might not be news to anyone who’s worked in an open plan office, but some new research has arrived that backs up what many of us suspect: counter to their aims, open plan offices discourage face-to-face interaction and can even have a strong negative impact on employee performance.

A really interesting new study by the Royal Society, reported on by the BBC, investigates the impact of open plan offices on performance, the frequency and style of employee interactions.

The researchers undertook two field studies of corporations that transitioned to more open environments. They had employees wear devices that measured their proximity and face-to-face communication with other employees, and the researchers also monitored email communication.

The main line takeaway: employees in the more open offices transitioned from in-person communication to more email and instant messaging. The researchers found that employees in the open offices spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions than their closed-office counterparts, and employees in the open plan offices sent 67% more emails.

We’ve long advocated picking up the phone and actually having conversations over resorting to email and text. Now there’s research showing that our built office environment actually has an impact on these communication patterns: it might not be laziness, or fear of interacting over the phone, that’s causing people to email instead. It might actually be a perceived lack of privacy in bullpen-style office settings: why have a phone conversation, or an in-person chat, when it feels like everyone on the floor can hear you?

A while back, we wrote about how privacy is gaining traction as an important factor in offices and employee performance. While more companies are adopting intrusive employee surveillance schemes to break down the observational barriers between bosses and their employees, companies have also adopted open plan offices to break down physical barriers between teams to encourage more collaboration. On its face, it’s a noble goal. The BBC describes how, by some estimates, employees in white collar environments spend 50% more time on collaborative activities than they did twenty years ago.

But in the Royal Society study’s words, “some organizational scholars, especially social psychologists and environmental psychologists, have shown that removing spatial boundaries can decrease collaboration and collective intelligence.”

But the knock-on effects of this lack of collaboration are even worse: Executives at one of the companies in the study reported a qualitative decrease in productivity after they moved to an open office. Open-office distractions, combined with an unwillingness to speak aloud when everyone can hear you – perhaps out of a desire to avoid distracting others – appear to be the culprits.

It’s a counter-intuitive result, but it makes sense: employees perform best when they aren’t distracted, and when they aren’t facing the fear of micromanagement that can arise from the perception that they’re always being watched.  They tend to perform best when they’re encouraged to have actual conversations.

So is the solution to go back to closed-plan offices? Not quite. The BBC article advocates for something a little more holistic, a “mixed” workplace with some open areas, and some more traditional subdivided offices. The idea is to develop a healthy mix of office styles to suit different ways of working, instead of insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to laying out a company’s built environment.

We have an open plan office at Argentus, which suits us as a small company. We believe it does add opportunities for collaboration, even if distractions sometimes abound. But what’s your experience? Do open plan offices still have something to offer, or is it an idea whose time has come, and gone? Let us know what you think in the comments!


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