A new study conducted by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban with yet more confirmation of the problems with open plan office space is currently attracting wide attention in the media and on the web. Of course, the study does no more than confirm what has already been argued at length elsewhere and what workers know from experience and common sense, but the study is novel in that it has used high tech tracking methods. The authors also deploy extensive referencing and scientific method to support their findings. As we know, organisations will only listen to information that runs contrary to their commercial interests if studies ramp up the scientific overkill. Well done to the authors for their contribution on this front.
Libby Sander has also reported on the study in The Conversation and The Sydney Morning Herald with the optimistic title (perhaps added by the editors rather than the author) A new study should be the final nail for open-plan offices. Of course, if a building has already been purpose built according to what can only be described as the ideology of open plan, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to retrofit it.
Cal Newport who has commented at some length on his blog in the past on open plan refers to the article as well.
The Financial Review has also reported on the study
For quick reference, the abstract to Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban’s article, “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” which is available via open access on The Royal Society website can be found below.
Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes. In two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, we empirically examined—using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers—the effect of open office architectures on employees’ face-to-face, email and instant messaging (IM) interaction patterns. Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. 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. This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture. The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Interdisciplinary approaches for uncovering the impacts of architecture on collective behaviour’.