open workspace

Do Open Offices Kill Collaboration?

Open workspaces may actually decrease face-to-face interactions, according to a new study by Harvard researchers on how open workspaces affect human collaboration. In the study, employees wore sociometric badges that measured their actions. The findings showed that in open workspaces, face-to-face interactions decreased by about 70 percent, while electronic interactions increased.

The point of open offices is to remove barriers and foster a collaborative environment, but does all that open space actually produce the opposite effect?

Defining Open Office Spaces

Not everyone is convinced you need to rush to build walls in your open offices based on these findings. “I hate to sit on the fence, but it depends on your definition of ‘open office,’ ” says Brent Zeigler, president and director of design at Dyer Brown, a Boston-based architectural firm.

“If we are talking about a setting where the only areas for working — meetings, collaborating, heads-down work or any productive task — is in the open with no walls, no dividers and no separation, then I would say that kind of open office will likely hinder collaboration,” Zeigler says.

“However, if the definition of an open office describes a workplace in which only a few — or none — have enclosed offices and the remainder is primarily workstations with an appropriate amount of space for meeting, collaboration and/or private or sensitive conversations, then I believe that workplace collaboration would be enhanced or improved.”

Some companies could be applying the wrong terminology to their workspaces. For example, Lynnette Holsinger, president of the HR Florida State Council, says most of the open office spaces that she’s seen don’t fit her definition of being open in terms of collaboration. “The companies define them as open because there are no ceilings and doors, but there are cubicle walls.”

In a Robert Half survey conducted last year, 65 percent of workers agreed that open plan offices contribute to collaboration. However, 60 percent also believed that private offices were conducive to collaboration, and 68 percent felt the same way about semi-private cubicles. The highest percentage, 69 percent, thought a combination of open and private spaces was good for collaboration.

The Privacy-Disruption Factor

It’s possible that open offices may be hindering collaboration because employees are concerned that other workers could hear their conversations. There will always be a need for privacy, but according to Ashley Dunn, director of workplace at Dyer Brown, we may need to change how we think about privacy needs in the workplace. “Fifteen years ago it was common in most markets for everyone to have an office, giving an employee privacy 100 percent of the time even if they only needed privacy 30 percent of the time.”

If you only need privacy 30 percent of the time, Dunn says the office is not being used optimally 70 percent of the time, which contributes to a lack of connection between co-workers.

“Open layouts flip that notion on its head: If you need privacy 30 percent of the time for confidential conversations or heads-down work, you should be able to find a space that is private when you need it and within reasonable proximity to your desk,” Dunn says.

“That room may take up 60 square feet instead of a 120-square-foot private office and serve the privacy needs of several employees instead of only one.”

Collaboration vs. Other Factors

While the Harvard researchers’ study only addressed collaboration, companies considering this type of design should also weigh other factors. For example, some employers might like open office plans so they can “keep an eye” on workers. “People can look busy without being more productive, so open work spaces do not guarantee increased productivity,” Holsinger says.

Eighty-six percent of respondents in the Robert Half survey felt that having a private office helps productivity, compared with 51 percent of employees in semi-private cubicles and 48 percent of those working in an open floor plan. “While some people can be very productive in a completely open workspace, I don’t think this is the norm,” Zeigler says. “The majority of employees are most productive in a setting that supports all of the different tasks that they need to complete in a day.”

Designing a progressive workplace should take into account other variables as well.

“Goals for high-performance workplace projects might include increasing transparency between managers and staff, reducing the number of private offices and using the space saved to program team rooms, or eliminating hard walls in favor of flexible design that responds quickly to a company’s growth and evolving needs, especially in fast-paced industries,” Dunn says. “The goals of each organization will be different, and face-to-face collaboration is important, but it’s not the sole objective for every new workplace.”

In the final analysis, creating collaboration may be based more on the company’s culture than the physical office space. “Unless a collaborative culture has been nurtured, it may not increase collaboration — in fact it could cause co-workers forced into this environment to be even less collaborative and feel defensive,” Holsinger says. She says a fully open office should be used only within departments or departments that have to work together, and only when there’s a strong collaborative culture in place.