Communication, collaboration, and open plan offices

September 17, 2020

Whilst vast amounts of research has demonstrated the damaging effects of open plan offices on productivity, open plan offices are often seen as the more collaborative and sociable option.

New research, however, suggests that this may not be the case. A pair of scientific studies published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society suggest that open plan offices actually drive down the frequency of face-to-face communication and cause a significant rise in use of email and instant messenger.

Participants in the first study were recruited from a the global headquarters of a Fortune 500 multinational company that was about to undergo an office redesign – moving from individual cubicles to to an open plan design. Workers from all areas of the business wore a “sociometric badge” and microphone prior to and after the redesign.

The results were dramatic. Once the open plan design was implemented, people spent 73% less time in face-to-face communication, and the use of email and instant messenger increased by 67% and 75% respectively. A second study used a similar experimental design and found that face-to-face communication time decreased by approximately 70% on average, whilst email use increased by between 22%-50%.

These results show the importance of considered office design and the dangers of assumptions when it comes to these designs.

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