How the structure of offices shapes collaboration

Rolled up blueprints rest on a desk.

The glorious and sometimes (often?) uncomfortable thing about science, is that it can deliver answers to questions that are counter-intuitive.

Take open offices, for example. Who could predict that open offices would result in significantly fewer face to face interactions?

Remarkably, this is what some fascinating research by Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber demonstrated. This kind of research reminds me how important, and difficult, reality testing can be. Making choices about office architecture is important, and there are powerful emotional intelligence skills involved in our decision making. It’s also a fascinating case study in work culture, and how business decisions are sometimes cloaked in a fog of weak evidence.

Abstract: “The impact of ‘open workspace’ on human collaboration”

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.

Read the research article, “The impact of ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration.”

Architecture is easy to observe—you just look at blueprints, models, technology, or the space around you. Until recently the anatomy of collaboration was hard to observe. But technology has made it possible to detect and analyze the flows of communication.

Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber, Harvard Business Review

When it comes to solutions, Bernstein and Waber encourage experimentation and collaboration. Letting employees simply choose their preference isn’t optimal, they note, because some will opt for closed offices, others open spaces, and still others will work from home — meaning staffers will be even less likely to collide and collaborate than before. Instead, they urge managers to consider getting together with employees to test — rigorously, using the scientific method or A/B testing — different office configurations.

By Colleen Walsh, The Harvard Gazette

Bernstein said most companies opt for open offices because the cost per square foot is cheaper. But he said managers need to consider that the loss of privacy comes with a price too.

“Here’s proof that open office layouts don’t work, and how to fix them”

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