Open-Office Plan Conundrum

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There’s been a lot of talk the last few years that open-office plans allow for more creativity and collaboration. Up until now, there was no reason to doubt that. For the first time, a new study provides proof those open office plans may not be applicable in all situations.

After a shift to an open-office plan, one Fortune 500 company found employees spent 73% less time engaging in face-to-face communications. At the same time, the company saw a 67% increase in the use of email and a 75% increase in the use of instant messenger technology.

Study Details

The study was conducted by Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School and Stephen Turban of Harvard University. They partnered with an anonymous, multinational Fortune 500 company. Leaders there decided to move away from their current office design (a cubicle setting) and move toward the latest in open-office design space and products. Once complete, the entire floor would be open and with no boundaries.

Bernstein and Turban recruited 52 employees for the study. They were diverse in job functions split across sales, technology, and human resources. Each were asked to wear a piece of technology called a “sociometric badge” for three weeks prior to the redesign. Once the redesign was complete, the same participants were asked to wear the badge for another three weeks.

Courtesy: The Royal Society Publishing

The badge was a Bluetooth enabled device that, as previously mentioned, came complete with a microphone, an infrared detector and accelerometer. It allowed Bernstein and Turban to monitor the frequency of the employees’ face-to-fact interactions.

In addition to the badges, the researchers were granted permission to access the company’s servers to monitor email and instant messenger use.

A Second Study

After the first study was complete and the results seen, Bernstein and Turban conducted a second study. It was similar in nature. However, this study involved 100 employees and the researchers monitored changes to the nature of the interactions between specific pairs of employees before the and after the company transitioned to an open-office floor plan.

Again, they saw similar results.

Face-to-face interactions dropped around 70% among participants. Email usage increased between 22% and 50 %.

Outside Influences

As previously stated, this is the first time a study tackling this side of the open-office plan debate has been undertaken. That said, there is room to question the results. The experiment on which the results are based was not under the researchers’ full control. It is very possible other factors, besides the office design, played a part in results. For instance, Bernstein and Turban allowed time for the employees to get adjusted to their new office setup before resuming the experiment.

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“While it is possible to bring chemical substances together under specific conditions of temperature and pressure to form the desired compound, more factors seem to be at work in achieving a similar effect with humans,” the researchers said. “Until we understand those factors, we may be surprised to find a reduction in face-to-face collaboration at work even as we architect transparent, open spaces intended to increase it.”

The Other Side of the Coin

In January, the HR Exchange Network focused its monthly report on Developing a Culture of Innovation. Advisory Board members Rebecca Ahmed with Pinnacle Entertainment and Augie Schulke with Veolia North America made the case for an open-office plan.

“If you do block people off, essentially that's a metaphor for blocking off their ideas,” Ahmed said.

“When you think of Facebook… when you think of Google… when you think of these… really innovative companies, most of them have open workspaces,” Ahmed said. She said these physical environments leads to a “contagious, exciting type of atmosphere.”

Download report: Developing a Culture of Innovation

Augie Schulke, the Chief Human Resources Officer of Veolia North America, agrees.

“Our CEO has structured our physical work place where it enables collaboration, teamwork, alignment… simultaneous conversations that just happen,” Schulke said. “We have set ourselves up in order to take advantage of having better meetings, better conversations.”

There’s no place better than work

In a recent Gallup survey, 25% of Americans work between 45-59 hours per week. With that in mind, there is a real desire by some companies to make their workplace feel more like home. This speaks to the physical design of a workplace. Instead of cubicles and offices, think about infusing relaxing backyards and plush sofas in to a redesign. Not only is this functional for employees, it also helps attract and retain top talent.

Using space creatively and linking it to the needs of the workforce is important. Not everyone enjoys working in a loud office for instance. Use space to create quiet, individual spaces. Also create collaborative spaces that are attractive in some way. Learning spaces should lend themselves to visual and audible presentations.

Mobility is also a necessity, especially when you consider technology savvy workers, regardless of generation. Teleworking, for instance could be offered. Also, make sure employees are equipped with mobile technology; either provided by the company or the employee him or herself. Encourage movement from space to space to ensure collaboration.

One distinctive quality of innovation is the fact it evolves. So, too, must the space in which an innovative workplace culture thrives.


This further iterates an open-office plan isn’t always a good idea. And it’s not always a bad idea. It really depends upon the disposition of your workforce and how employees best work together. It also depends upon the premium placed on creativity, collaboration, and innovation.