338 — The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

Bernstein & Turban (10.1098/rstb.2017.0239)

Read on 24 July 2018
#social  #collaboration  #psychology  #behavior  #communication  #society  #workplace  #architecture  #sociology 

This paper has been getting a lot of press recently, and with good reason: It flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that open offices improve interaction and collaboration.

It seems reasonable that colocation with coworkers would improve collaboration and rate of communication. After all, two humans perceive themselves to be closer in location if there is no boundary separating them — even if the distance is exactly the same. But previous research has suggested that these boundaries are an important part of the communication ecosystem: A boundary informs you who is receiving or transmitting relevant information to you; it also helps elucidate ownership of information, “air time,” and physical belongings.

This same corpus of literature shows that boundaries in the workplace actually increase communication, as it promotes active communication rather than passive.

This paper conducts a series of studies that aim to better understand this phenomenon. The studies were conducted at two anonymous Fortune 500 companies.

At each company, the headquarters was in process of redesign and the new location was planned to be “open.”

In both companies, the amount of meaningful face-to-face interaction decreased (in one case, by 72%!), and the amount of virtual communication increased. IM and email in particular increased in both cases.

This suggests that effective communication — generally, face-to-face human interaction — decreases by an enormous degree in an open office space, and less effective methods, such as IM and email, increase.