Employees hate open office plans, but at least they help employees collaborate and work together? It saves companies money and it increases teamwork, right? Well, wrong. 

Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, at Harvard Business School and Harvard University, took a look at people who switched from individual cubicles to an open office plan. What they found wasn't more collaboration after the switch but less. Participants in the study spent

  • 73 percent less time in face-to-face interactions
  • 67 percent more time on email
  • 75 percent more time on instant messenger

Not exactly what you want to see when you move your employees into an open office plan. Instead of looking up across the table and saying, "Hey, Jane, what do you think about this?" they are sending text messages.

If you've ever sought refuge from the goldfish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you've decided you'd rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers, and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise.

People like privacy. They like to speak one on one. And if you don't give them at least some privacy (cubicles don't really have a great deal of soundproofing but it's better than nothing), people will turn to the means they have for private communication--electronic ones. You might as well all be working from home.

Working from home can be great for many types of jobs, but it's not great for all jobs, nor is it great for all people. While some people thrive on it, others want to work with other people--or just simply get out of the house. That's not a bad thing.

And, no, providing conference rooms where people can have private conversations doesn't solve the problem. For instance, if you're a manager and want to give quick negative feedback to an employee, you have the option of giving it in full earshot of everybody else, or saying, "John, come and join me in the conference room," which tells everyone that this is something they shouldn't hear. By contrast, with even the privacy of the cubicle you can quickly step in and say, quietly, "John, there were a ton of typos on that last report. Can you please double check before you send something out or ask someone to review it?" 

Let's let this fad of open offices (and, worse, hot-desking open offices) fade into oblivion. Give people some privacy and they'll actually talk to one another more often. Isn't that what you want? Face-to-face collaboration? Then let's do what it takes to get it.

Published on: Jul 7, 2018