“In the cartoon strip Dilbert, the boss starts a meeting by pondering a classic dilemma of modern working life. “We’re trying to decide if it’s better to have an open-plan office with too many distractions to be productive,” he says, “or soul-crushing cubicles that will make every employee envy the dead.”
There is important new evidence that could help him in his decision. While cubicles might still be soul-crushing, it turns out that open-plan offices do not — as many advocates argue — actually increase human contact. Instead, a study has found that in an open-plan office, far from being distracted by each other, we create virtual walls. We meet each other far less and communicate by email far more.
This is bad news for one of the most popular fads in office design. One of the chief arguments in favour of open-plan offices has always been that they increase “collective intelligence” by forcing people to meet each other.
When two large companies, which have been kept anonymous, made the shift from cubicles to open plan, researchers took the opportunity to test the theory. For a study in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, they placed devices on employees that measured where they were standing, whether they were talking and who they were talking to. They also recorded their volume of email and instant messaging use. The results were unambiguous. By looking at a three-week period before the change, and comparing it with a three-week period three months after, they found that face-to-face interaction in the open-plan offices plummeted by 70 per cent.
There was a corresponding rise in email and instant messaging communication. Ethan Bernstein, from Harvard Business School, said that he did not know what to expect when he began the study. “On the one hand, it is hard to believe that people would not have a more vibrant and interactive experience when they work in an open office,” he said. “The sociology of it is clear: ‘proximity breeds interaction’.
“On the other hand, I’ve spent enough time on the Tube at rush hour to see that being packed together doesn’t necessarily lead to interaction.”
He said that the research seemed to show that precisely this paradigm was at play — that when people had too little privacy they were more likely to try to compensate in other ways.
“Look around open-plan offices and you can see why this might be,” he said. “People put on huge headphones to avoid distraction. They stare intently at their screens because they know people are watching and want to look busy. Then people looking at them from across the room see someone working intently and don’t want to interrupt. So they send an email instead.”
Source:The Times (pay wall)