It might seem like open office environments might improve communication between employees by their very nature — but recent research suggests that working in an open office is not great for socializing after all. As Drake Baer points out over at New York Magazine's Science of Us blog, this finding seems a little counter-intuitive. After all, in an open office setting, we generally have more access to our colleagues because we aren't working in separate offices or cubicles. In theory, this encourages us to talk to one another more and collaborate. But does it really? Maybe not.
According to a recent study from the Auckland University of Technology suggests, it appears that people who work in open office plans actually have worse relationships with their coworkers than people who have private or shared offices. What's more, when you compare the quality of friends people in open offices have to people who work from home, the disparity is even greater. It's worth pointing out, too, that this was no small scale or fluke study: Researchers surveyed 1,000 workers in Australia to gather their findings, suggesting that this result might translate easily to a general population.
So, then: What gives?
Rachel Morrison, the lead researcher of the study, suggests at The Conversation that having too much proximity and availability can actually backfire when it comes to forming bonds and friendships. It's worth noting, of course, that people have different definitions of what it means to be "friends," as well as different preferences for social interactions. When you consider how different people's friendship needs can be, it's no surprise that an open office space might be a real toss-up as to whether or not people actually click.
While open offices in their current form are a somewhat recent development — NPR pins their rise on Italian architect and interior Gaetano Pesce and his work creating an office like a "huge living room" for the ad agency Chiat-Day in the '90s — they've impacted us in no small way. While there is some variation depending on the specific place you work, it's no longer unusual to walk into an office and see a wide expanse of tables and laptops, with no walls or cubicles in sight. How successful these open office spaces are really does vary, however.
For example, one study from Oxford Economics suggests that working in an open office environment actually lowers employee output, as well as overall morale. Their findings suggest that an inability to filter out background noise impacted workers; a similar struggle with filtering out distractions was evident as well. This is contrast to a study by Forbes that suggests that workers are actually happiest and most productive when working from home.
Of course, it's good to remember that there are pros to an open office floorspace. As Jim Belosic at Inc explains, being in an open office environment generally means your colleagues are more approachable to you and less intimidating. This can be great if you want to learn more about a role in another department or if you're looking for a mentor in your workplace. It can also make supervisors seem a little less distant and removed from lower level employees. As Belosic explains, open offices also give you a more nuanced perspective of the office vibe.
When it comes down to it, an open office may or may not work well for you. Luckily, there are many tips for how to thrive in open office settings, even if they are not your ideal work environment. Even if it isn't your favorite way to work, it can be helpful to use it as a learning opportunity and a chance to develop the coping skills you may continue to need in your career. It doesn't look like open offices are going anywhere, research findings or not.