The Floundering Myth of Open Offices

The idea behind the open office trend is that having all your colleagues in one big room fosters collaboration. I imagine building the spaces is less expensive as well. Unfortunately, we’ve been hearing about how poorly this works for people who need to have a distraction-free environment, like some of the software developers that these spaces were initially designed for.

Just today I read about yet another nail in the open office coffin. Cal Newport’s email newsletter advocating deep work referenced an interesting study performed by researchers Bernstein and Tubman at the Harvard Business School showing that employees spent 72% less time in face-to-face interactions, sent 56% more email and 67% more IMs after being moved to an open office space.

The study sampled 152 employees across two companies and found similar results in both cases. It’s remarkable that in-person communication actually went down when switching to open offices – the opposite effect of what people had predicted. The researchers speculate that this is a reaction to a lack of privacy – that people might look around, see that someone is at their desk, and choose to send an email or IM rather than walking over to say hello. It will be interesting to hear how these initial observations are extended. Maybe there is a sweet spot in terms of group size, or the amount of personal space each worker has, or the layout of the desks in the open office.