The Way Your Office Is Set Up Could Make You Way Less Productive, A New Study Shows

by James Hale
BDG Media, Inc.

If, over the past few years, you've worked in an office, been anywhere near an office, or been remotely close to anyone who works in an office, you probably know open office layouts have been the hot topic in corporate office design. Proponents of the open office plan say having no cubicles facilitates bonding between employees; detractors say "open" just means "open for distractions." And unfortunately for folks who switched over to open office plans, a new study suggests that open offices make employees less productive and less likely to collaborate — quite the opposite of the benefits these plans are meant to create.

The full study, published recently in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, actually comprises two studies, an initial one and a larger follow-up researchers completed to see if they would get similar findings, according to the study report. Both the first and second studies were conducted at Fortune 500 multinational companies. In the first study, the company redesigned employees' workspaces "so that one entire floor was open, transparent and boundaryless."

This open office redesign "required people to move from assigned seats on their original floor to similarly assigned seats on a redesigned floor of the same size," and brought together employees from various departments, including tech, sales, human resoures, finance, and product development, according to the study report.

BDG Media, Inc.

Researchers spent four weeks, broken up into two, two-week segments, observing the emails and instant messages of 52 of the employees who moved, and found that employees spent 72 percent less time interacting face to face, dropping from an average of 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per employee per day, down to 1.7 hours per employee per day. Additionally, employees sent 56 percent more emails after the redesign, and instant messaging activity went up a whopping 67 percent post-redesign, researchers wrote in the study report. Based on this data, researchers concluded that "in boundaryless space, electronic interaction replaced [face-to-face] interaction" and negatively impacted employee interaction and collaboration.

In the second study, researchers looked at nearly double the number of participants for a total of sixteen weeks, in an office that was "in the process of a multiyear headquarters redesign, which [...] involved a transformation from assigned seats in cubicles to similarly assigned seats in an open office design, with large rooms of desks and monitors and no dividers between people's desks." Researchers found that the 100 employees in this study spent between 67 and 71 percent less time interacting face to face, and emailed each other between 22 percent and 50 percent more, according to the study report.

BDG Media, Inc.

With data from both these studies, researchers concluded that "open, unbounded" office designs significantly decrease employees' face-to-face interactions. Researchers theorized in the study report that the simultaneous decrease of face-to-face interactions and increase of emails and instant messages may be caused by a general lack of privacy in open offices. For example, "[r]ather than have [a face-to-face] interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email," they wrote.

Researchers also noted that though some folks in favor of open office designs "[assume] open spaces would promote collective intelligence among humans," their findings actually indicated that open offices "may be overstimulating and thus decrease organizational productivity."

Basically, if you're annoyed about working in an open office, you're definitely not alone. And the issue coming out of this study is that researchers don't actually have a solution that is not traditional cubicle offices. The only knowledge they have is that the data collected for this study indicates open offices aren't effective in the way that they're touted to be, and that interior designers may want to focus on finding a middle ground between the cubicle offices of old and the open layout people thought would be the future.