Mind & Body

There's a Scientific Reason Open Offices Are so Quiet, and It's Not Good

Open offices are undeniably trendy — they account for roughly three quarters of offices in the U.S. — but they just as undeniably make people miserable. Without cubicles and partitions, there's no privacy. Everyone's distracted by each other's chitchat or hiding in plain sight with giant headphones. (Are they even listening to music?) Sickness also spreads fast in the prairie-like expanse. It's unclear if open offices even do what their supporters claim they do: facilitate face-to-face conversation and collaboration. New research suggests they actually do the opposite.

When an Office Opens, What Changes?

For a recent study, Harvard researchers measured the type and quantity of social interactions employees had at two different offices, before and after an open-plan remodel. They found that face-to-face interactions in both offices dropped roughly 70 percent with the advent of the open plan.

This was weird. The fewer barriers between people, the more they should talk, right? It was just common sense, and previous research backed it up. But that previous research was based primarily on surveys, which require employees to report their own behavior — not always an accurate portrait of what's going on.

This new study, on the other hand, skipped surveys in favor of "sociometric badges," which are wearable technology with infrared sensors, microphones, and other bells and whistles. These badges could measure the length of a person's face-to-face conversations, when they were moving or speaking (though not what was said), where they were, and even their posture — and these automatic checks happened every 10 milliseconds.

The researchers got workers in two separate Fortune 500 companies — 52 at Company 1 and 100 at Company 2 — to wear these badges. Then they tracked their behavior in multi-week blocks: one before the office remodel and one three months after to allow for a period of adjustment. At Company 1, the blocks lasted three weeks and focused on the total amount of time spent in face-to-face interaction; at Company 2, the blocks lasted eight weeks and focused on how much specific pairs of people communicated.

In both cases, face-to-face conversation dropped precipitously after the open plan remodel, and based on email and IM data from company servers, electronic communication skyrocketed. It's worth noting, though, that this was fieldwork in real-life offices, not a controlled study. Outside factors, like new management or interpersonal issues, could have contributed to these results, too.

Why Open Offices Fall Short

Why would an open office radically reduce face-to-face interaction? Perhaps, the study authors note, people just don't enjoy having conversations in front of every single one of their colleagues. When there are walls, private face-to-face conversation is easier; without them, private conversations shift online. The authors also noted that open offices might trip some innate human instinct to withdraw socially in a situation of forced togetherness. That's the same reason it's easier to make a new friend at an intimate dinner party than at the Lollapalooza main stage.

Maybe none of this is a big deal. Colleagues were still talking to each other roughly the same amount; the mode of communication just changed. However, the study authors noted that written communication is generally less efficient than talking — who among us hasn't written an email to our boss, revised it, and then run it by a friend? — which means the open plan comes with a productivity cost. By encouraging employees to email, the open plan may also change who employees communicate with. Some people are fun to talk to and taxing to email, and vice versa. This can create friction within teams.

Then again, maybe open offices aren't really about teamwork. Some argue that they've always just been about cutting companies' real estate costs since you can definitely fit more workers in an open plan space than in a partitioned one. In that case, the drop in productivity might be worth the savings.

Want to polish up your workplace communication skills? Check out "The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People" by Dr. Paul White and Dr. Gary Chapman, the guy who wrote the wildly popular book "The 5 Love Languages." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Mae Rice July 17, 2018

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