Commentary – Open-Plan Offices – How Office Environments Are Making Us Less Social and Why Architects Are to Blame.

There is an article circulating around LinkedIn about a study performed by the Harvard Business School contradicting the notion that open-plan offices promote collaboration.

The article describes a social experiment where the interactions of a group of people working in an open-plan environment were monitored.  According to the findings these people spent 73% less time in face to face interactions.  According to the findings, this caused an increase in use of email and messenger communication by 67% and 75% respectively.

The article goes on to suggest that the notion of an open plan office was never really about increasing collaboration and was more about saving cost on Real Estate.  The same article includes a link to a second article citing another study which concludes that employees in open-plan environments are generally dissatisfied with their work environments.

Around the same time that I first saw the Harvard Business School article I also saw an article from Boredpanda.com where they published 19 photos that show what office environments were like for Architects and Engineers before the advent of Computer Aided Drafting.

If you look at these photos you will see what looks like an old fashioned open-plan environment with no privacy walls or acoustical panels of any kind.  Rows and rows of drafting tables are set up in an open-plan style with dozens of draftsmen laying across their desks drafting.

Now, I’m not saying I like open-plan offices, nor am I contradicting findings of the study.  I am however pointing out that open-plan offices are not necessarily a new idea.

Yes, these planning techniques are intended to reduce the cost of real estate, but what most don’t know is that these techniques have been around a long time and they have been studied since the 1950’s.

There are a number of scholarly article published by the National Research Council of Canada that has looked at the relationship between employee productivity levels and open-plan offices.

In 2002 Jennifer Veitch, CJG Marquardt and KE Charles published a joint research paper called  Environmental Satisfaction with Open-Plan Office Furniture Design and Layout.  This paper which concludes that environmental factors such as lighting, privacy, air temperature, and cubicle size have a direct impact on productivity references other research dating back to 1979.

The 1979 article that was referenced is called Employee Reactions to an Open-Plan Office: A Naturally Occurring Quasi-Experiment.  This paper was written by Greg R. Oldham and Daniel J. Brass and it concludes that “employee satisfaction and internal motivation decreased significantly” after moving from a conventional office to an open-plan office.

I’ll go a step further and share that the Oldman and Brass article even references social psychology experiments from the 1950’s that looked at how “architecture…can substantially influence…patterns of communication and social interaction“.

I share these studies with you to shed light on the fact that office environments have been a topic of much research and study far longer than many of us have been alive.  Also to underscore that open-plan office spaces are not a new construct.

The Harvard Business School study confirms what many researchers before them have already shown.  Open-plan office environments do impact how we interact and communicate, however, it is important to note that all of these preceding studies came to these conclusions at a time where we did not have email and messaging tools.

For me this begs the question; What was the impact on communication back then?

For this I turned to the Oldman and Brass article where it discusses the two schools of thought regarding office planning.

Social Relations Framework

All of you who hate open plan offices can thank the social psychological research published by Festinger, Schacter, and Back in 1950.  These studies argued that “the absence of interior walls and barriers in open-plan offices facilitate the development of social relationships…which in turn, positively influence employee motivation and satisfaction.

The study entitled “Social pressures in informal groups: A study of human factors in housing“, suggests that “individuals are likely to interact and communicate with others when the physical characteristics of buildings…encourage them to do so

The problem with this study is that it was focused on residential environments and was more applicable to how neighbors interact than how office workers interact.

A second classic study that is cited in Oldman and Brass paper is research from Holahan and Seagert in 1973 which further supports the notion that physical characteristics of the built environment influences social interaction.   Holahan and Seagert’s study was focused on Hospital environments.

Sociotechnical Approach

The sociotechnical approach states that “physical boundaries transform a work area into a private defensible space.  When an area is bounded by partitions…an individual experiences a greater sense of privacy…a private area provides opportunities for personal conversations and sharing of information.

The study goes on to state that a lack of barriers impacts the work environment by eliminating an individual’s autonomy, independence, and discretion to perform their work.  Creates an environment which limits an individual’s ability to perform a task from start to end.  Reduces opportunities for interpersonal communication between a supervisor and employees and limits opportunities for forming meaningful friendships because the lack of privacy only allows for superficial interactions.

Closing

From all of this, I concluded that the move from conventional office environments (with enclosed offices and walled partitions) towards open-plan environments has had the effect of making our communications superficial.

Even before technology that limits communication to 280 characters, a lack of a private personal space caused us to moderate our communication and interactions.  It caused us to become more superficial and to have less meaningful relationships at work.

The move away from face to face conversations noted by the Harvard study are perhaps not a sign that open-plan environments cause us to avoid personal interactions, rather that technology enables us to be more interpersonal.  Digital platforms allow us to communicate one on one without the worry that someone would overhear and perhaps judge what you said.  The walls and partitions of old have been replaced by digital spaces that allow us to communicate in an unfiltered way.

There are many other benefits to open-plan environments.  Anyone who can recall what office spaces were like when cubicle partitions were 6 feet tall, knows how claustrophobic and maze-like that used to feel.  Open-plan concepts offer open unobstructed spaces that feel less oppressive.  They allow for the spread of natural lighting.  They reduce the physical footprint of an office and they allow for more efficient heating, cooling, and lighting.

Architects do however, need to ensure that we address the need for personal privacy.  We are social creatures who require places to meet and communicate one on one.  I don’t see us ever moving back towards enclosed high walled cubicles, but as Architects, we have a duty to recognize the social needs of occupants.

In my opinion, what the Harvard study demonstrates is that even though we continue to evolve the open-plan office, human social needs have not changed.  As office environments continue to strip away physical barriers, occupants are forced to find alternate forms of communication to fulfill their need for privacy.  This is less of a statement about our dependence on technology and more of a reflection on the failure of Architects to properly address social needs.

What do you think?  Do open-plan environments encourage communication or do they cause you to communicate less?  Do you rely on technology as your primary form of communication?  Tell me your stories.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this content, please feel free to browse my previous articles and please like, share, comment, and subscribe.  This helps promote my content and is greatly appreciated.

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