The Downside of Open-Concept Offices

Once touted as a powerful tool to encourage collaboration and creativity, cubicle-free open workplaces have taken a hit in the business world as research indicates that they often discourage face-to-face interactions and harm productivity.

“The neuroscience is becoming very clear: Open floor plans are not good,” says Jonathan Denn, “chief thinking partner” at Drumbeat Productivity in Dennis, Massachusetts. “Walking for five minutes an hour is good, and having a door you can close for 90 minutes twice a day is good.”

Denn, the author of “Drumbeat Business Productivity Playbook: How to Beat Goals and Disorganization,” has been preaching the necessity of private space and time for workers. A growing body of research seems to support his position.

For instance, Harvard Business School researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban studied two Fortune 500 companies that transitioned from traditional workspaces to more open-floor concepts and found the volume of face-to-face interactions decreased by about 70 percent in both cases, while electronic interactions increased by a similar rate.

“In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM,” the study’s abstract says.

We asked Denn to break down what’s going on at open offices and why they appear to be so problematic.

The Death of Quiet Time

Denn says the science is fairly clear that workers need about three hours of quiet time to do their own work every day, and that work is probably best done in two 90-minute sessions. After the three hours are up, he says, workers are basically running on autopilot, using habits and mental models to complete tasks. Uninterrupted private space is less important during this time.

The problem with open offices, he says, is that interruptions are quite common, whether it’s someone sharing a new idea or merely noise from a co-worker’s phone call. “You get a time penalty for that — 10 minutes, 20 minutes, maybe a minute or two if it’s a brief interruption,” he says. “Can you imagine the amount of time lost every day for the open-space floor plan? It’s biblical.”

Denn says that in an open space where everyone can hear every other phone call, workers will often adapt and isolate themselves with noise-canceling headphones. Rather than interrupt someone with headphones, people tend to simply communicate via email or instant message, he says.

In the Harvard study, managers reported a drop in worker productivity after they moved to the open floor plan, which the study authors attributed to the increased electronic communication.

Out of Touch

Denn says the open-office trend was largely driven by a combination of cost-cutting and managers who touted the potential collaboration benefits of boundaryless spaces without properly considering the consequences.

“The problem is that senior management, who usually authorize office expenditures, are not keeping up with current research, nor are they experiencing what it’s really like,” he says. “It’s a disconnect between the C-suite and the actual people who do the work.”

Denn says open floor plans do have the potential to allow small, high-performing and knowledgeable groups to work well together and begin sharing ideas and information with less-knowledgeable colleagues. “But I think that’s really rare,” he says.

More often than not, he says, the potential benefits are eclipsed by the negative impacts, such as leaving managers with no space to counsel or coach a team member in what can often be sensitive conversations that require some privacy.

Varied Work Needs Varied Space

“If your organization doesn’t have the money to give everybody an office, you’re going to be stuck with an open workspace,” Denn says. “Generally speaking it’s not a good idea, but you have to make the best with what you’ve got.”

If your organization finds itself in this situation, Denn suggests dedicating at least some private space surrounding the open floor for large group meetings, smaller gatherings of two or three workers, one-on-one employee counseling sessions and solitary work. This can be accomplished with a combination of flexible meeting space and more private offices that can be reserved in advance by individual workers who know they need an hour of private time.

“That’s a way to balance the capital expenditure problem of giving everybody their own door and at the same time giving everyone the flexibility to do different kinds of work,” he says.

Denn suggests organizations carefully consider the different types of meetings that happen in a workplace when designing their office. The first are information exchanges, which he says can be done in open spaces.

On the other hand, convergent meetings in which ideas are analyzed and decisions are made, as well as divergent meetings, where people with different skills gather to generate ideas, are best done in spaces that support those particular types of thinking.

“The convergent space should be nice, neat and orderly,” he says. “The divergent space should be just the opposite — messy, cluttered, lots of colors, whiteboards on the walls, music — so people can make connections and new solutions out of problems they’ve never seen before.”

Finally, he says companies need spaces beyond the open floor pit that are purely social to allow people with no agenda but a common goal to interact — such as a very large coffee space that accommodates a large portion of the team.

“That’s not a waste of time,” he says. “This is like when an engineer talks to a sales rep and the sales rep says, ‘if this widget over here, if they didn’t have to do that they could save four steps and two hours in their day,’ and the engineer says, ‘why didn’t you tell me, that’s easy, I could do that by Friday.’ You don’t get that unless they meet at a social event.”

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.