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.”

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