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The Truth Behind Open-Plan Offices

The Truth Behind Open-Plan Offices

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Open-plan offices encourage collaboration. They encourage creative thinking. They breed innovative solutions. They inspire interactions and productive teamwork. Or do they?

Have you heard similar beliefs? If you have, then you may have worked in open-plan offices in the past. Did you enjoy the experience? Or did you realize that these beliefs weren’t true? What seems to inspire the desire to create open-plan offices? There must be some research behind all of this, right?

In their article from the November–December 2019 issue of the Harvard Business ReviewEthan Bernstein and Ben Waber wrote about open offices. They get into a lot of detail and mention some in-depth research. In today’s article, we’ll get distill their article. We’ll take a quick look at some of their interesting conclusions. 

Spoiler alert: turns out that open-plan offices aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.


Open-Plan Offices And The Future Of The Workplace

Social media and online collaboration tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams have already disrupted the common workplace for years. More recently, all of the fast-growing virtual-meeting software such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Webex are making remote work more seamless than ever!

After this stint with remote work that the whole world is going through, will in-person meetings be a thing of the past? Or will it be a time to reconnect and be physically present?

Open-plan offices do facilitate interactions between employees. Many workplaces are already designed for interaction, but maybe this trend is going to be even more prevalent when the world gets back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic.

That being said, employees do have a lot of channels to choose from when it comes to communicating with one another. They can use the phone, they can text, email, use social media, video conference, and of course, face-to-face meetings. In their article, Bernstein and Waber suggest that meeting style or interaction style tends to depend on company culture. Therefore, having an open-plan office may also be a pillar of your company culture.


Open-Plan Offices Encourage Proximity 

One of the most interesting findings from the Harvard Business Review article is the following: the farther apart people are, the less they communicate. This finding is true for in-person interactions, but also for virtual messages. The study looked at people at desks in a corporate office environment. The closer their desks were to one another, the more likely they were to interact. If they were sitting further away from one another, the team members were less likely to communicate.

In fact, the reduction in communication is proportional to the distance between their desks! The more space between desks, the fewer interactions between employees. How knew that proximity in the workplace could be so inextricably linked to proximity?

In the same study, they found that remote workers communicated about 80% less than colocated teams. That’s a really important number. It’s a great reminder to anyone working remotely to ensure that they maintain constant communications.

Therefore, open-plan offices may help to encourage proximity. In open-space offices, desks can be arranged a lot closer together. Actually, there might be no desks at all. There could just be communal tables, couches, and group working spaces. Also, there are usually fewer walls or partitions.

On the one hand, the open-office design is meant to create a more collaborative working space. However, even though the open-office design should encourage face-to-face interactions, it also gives permission to teams to not interact. Since they are seeing each other and bumping into each other more often, their work-related interactions may actually be less meaningful.

In short, open offices may create proximity, but they also tend to multiply non-efficient interactions.


Some Facts About Office Spaces

It’s a common belief that removing walls in an office, and moving some of the furniture around, can create synergies. The belief that better office spaces can improve collaboration is up for debate. Nevertheless, office designers have been pushing “activity-based” office spaces. Open-plan offices where areas can be rearranged to suit the needs of teams have been surging in popularity.

If we’re speaking truthfully, open-space offices have come about at the same time as rising real estate costs. When leaders hire designers to reorganize their office spaces, they do so not to boost productivity or team interactions. They redesign the office space in order to fit more employees into the same space. Then, they justify their decisions with lofty ideas about improving communication and collaboration.

Yet, these more flexible workspaces don’t actually work to improve collaboration. In fact, not everyone is more productive in an open-space office. The fact of the matter is that some people are more used to having their own space. Moreover, some employees might be more productive when working from home.


Final Words On Open-Plan Offices

In a nutshell, we should question all of our assumptions about open-plan offices and office architecture in general. There is no one perfect physical or online workspace for teams. The study done by the writers of the Harvard Review article states that more interaction is not necessarily better. An adverse effect of open-plan offices is that they increase the number of run-ins which can actually be wasteful. Similarly, digital channels can be distracting and counterproductive. Teams need to try different combinations and figure out what works best for them.

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