Behaviour in Open Plan Offices: Less E-Mail, More Face-to-Face Talking?

July 25, 2018 Richard Justenhoven
working behaviour in open plan office space

What happens to communication and behaviour in open plan offices?

For years there has been a shift away from single private, cubicles – and offices-with-walls – towards more open plan office space. Driven by costs and the desire to create a more collaborative and face-to-face working environment, physical barriers are coming down. But how does this impact the way we work? Do we see a change in our behaviour in open plan office space? Does the collaborative benefit outweigh giving up our privacy, own space and quiet time?

Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban at Harvard Business School and Harvard University have studied the impact of this shift to understand behaviour in open plan office space at two Fortune 500 companies.

Study 1

52 employees were recruited into the study of the global headquarters of a company about to redesign an office floor away from private cubicle space and become open plan. Each participant agreed to wear a microphone for three weeks before the office refurb, and for three weeks after; this was to record their face to face interactions with co-workers. Their use of email and instant messaging was also tracked. Analysis of both the face to face interactions and the use of technological communications showed that:

  • Time spent in face to face interaction was 73% less after the move to open plan.
  • There was a 67% increase in the use of email.
  • There was a 75% increase in the use of instant messaging.

Study 2

100 employees took part in this study which explored the nature of interactions between specific pairs of co-workers pre- and post- move to open plan. These 100 employees created 1,830 interacting dyads. The results showed that:

  • Face-to-face time decreased by about 70%.
  • Email use increased by over 20%.

So, what does this mean for the future?

Before we start to build up the physical barriers again between us and our co-workers, there are several observations we can make from these studies into behaviour in open plan office space.

These have been interesting initial studies exploring how open plan space impacts our interactions – but more research is needed. There may be some cultural differences between what we are used to – and therefore have adapted to – regarding our working environment. We also know that, anecdotally, cross-functional teams which sit in close proximity and share a common goal, tend to see open plan as team space and work collaboratively and effectively.

We could explore in team building how we chose to work and interact with co-workers. During hiring, we can think about what drives candidates and explore their approach to work – and how this aligns with what the hiring company offers. We need to consider the personality aspects of our workforce – being aware that employees vary in the value they place on their general working environment, and recognising that even those who score highly on those related personality dimensions vary in what exactly they like (some like cubicles and others like open plan). And this preference will impact their performance and behaviour.

The measurement of values and personality characteristics can be carried out using our tools.

Bernstein, E. S. and Turban, S. (2018) The impact of the open workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 373: 20170239.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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