Open plan offices don’t deliver their promised benefits of more face-to-face collaboration and instead make us misanthropic recluses and more likely to use electronic communications tools.

So says a new article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, by Harvard academics Ethan S. Bernstein, Stephen Turban. The pair studied two Fortune 500 companies that adopted open office designs and wrote up the results as “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration”.


Analysis of the data revealed that “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.”

In the first workplace studied, “IM message activity increased by 67% (99 more messages) and words sent by IM increased by 75% (850 more words). Thus — to restate more precisely — in boundaryless space, electronic interaction replaced F2F interaction.”

The second workplace produced similar results.

The authors reach three conclusions, the first of which is that open offices “can dampen F2F interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate.”

Source: Open plan offices flop – you talk less, IM more, if forced to flee a cubicle • The Register