Open office plans actually reduce face-to-face interaction

A new study from Harvard Business School finds open-office layouts actually inhibit face-to-face interaction and collaboration.

Exterior, Apple Park. Open-office photos not allowed.
Image source: Newport Beach/Shutterstock

They were supposed to unlock a new era of collaboration and creativity at companies: Open-office floor plans that have everyone in one big space, working together, sharing lightning bolts of inspiration, drawing out introverts, and so on. Facebook's main workspace is 10 acres of open office. Much of Apple's $5-billion spaceship is built around the idea. Roughly 70% of U.S. offices in 2017 had low or no partitions. Except it turns out that many people really don't like working in an open office.

It turns out that they miss the ability to pull back from incessant interaction and bemoan the lack of quiet as making it harder to concentrate. They also don't enjoy life in a fishbowl. Rather than promoting interactivity, an open office may even inhibit it. A just-released study from Harvard Business School (HBR) suggests that an open-office plan, rather than bringing employees together, may encourage them to avoid face-to-face interaction with each other.


To track the before-and-after effects of an open office space, the HBR researchers, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, found two companies converting to the divider-less arrangement and willing to anonymously participate in the study. In the study, they're referred to as “OpenCo1" and “OpenCo2."

The F2F badges

Participating workers agreed to wear employee badges with embedded hardware for tracking their face-to-face (F2F) interactions.

(Bernstein, et al)

Each badge contained a:

  • microphone — that recorded whether the wearer was talking or listening, though not the content of what they said.
  • infrared sensor — that shook hands with the IR sensor of anyone they spoke to, so researchers could identify conversation participants.
  • accelerometer — for tracking body movement and posture.
  • bluetooth transmitter — for tracking the wearer's location.

The data was time-stamped every 10 ms (milliseconds). The badges were set to begin capturing data each time three conditions were met:

  • Two or more badges were facing each other as detected by an infrared connection.
  • Alternating speech was detected via the wearers' mics.
  • The wearers were within 10 meters of each other.

OpenCo1's experience

Observing OpenCo1 workers

At OpenCo1, 52 employees agreed to wear the badges and to have their instant messages (IMs) and emails logged. Altogether, the collected data came to 96,778 F2F interactions, 25,691 IMs with a total of 221,426 words, and 84,026 emails:

  • 18,748 sent
  • 55,012 received
  • 9755 received by cc
  • 511 received by bcc

The study captured data in two 15-workday chunks, one three weeks before the switch to an open office space, and one three months afterward. The timing was scheduled to land at the same time in the company's quarterly cycle so employees could be observed doing roughly the same work.

An open office at work (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

The effect of switching to an open office in OpenCo1

The study found that the open-office plan significantly changed the interaction between employees, and ultimately led to less productivity.

To begin with, employees essentially eschewed their enhanced physical proximity to each other, largely supplanting F2F contact with electronic exchanges. They spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face. At the same time, email and IM conversations increased:

  • 56% more emails were sent.
  • 20% more emails were received.
  • 67% more IMs were exchanged, involving 75% more words.

In terms of performance, company executives informed the researchers that the metrics by which the company measures productivity indicate that it had declined after the office-plan switch, achieving the opposite of the hoped-for result.

OpenCo2's experience

Observing OpenCo2 workers

At OpenCo2, a multinational Fortune 500 company, participating employees' — about 100, or 45% of those working in the open space — F2F and email data was collected. The company was already undergoing a multi-year transition to multiple floors of open offices when the study began. The employees involved worked on floors in which the transition had not yet occurred. Across the transition, employees remained roughly the same distance apart, though their cubicles were removed and no barriers replaced them.

With the results from OpenCo1 in hand, data was collected a little differently at OpenCo2:

  • 63,363 minutes of F2F interactions were captured from pairs, or dyads, of employees communicating verbally in person.
  • A raw count of 25,553 emails was accumulated without breaking them into sent, received, cc, etc. categories since it was felt that the ratio could be expected to be about the same as with openCo1.

The effect of switching to an open office in OpenCo2

The results at OpenCo2 were pretty similar to those at OpenCo1. After the open-office transition, more dyads decreased their F2F interactions (643) than increased them (141). Overall, F2F interaction decreased by an average of 69%.

Email exchanges, as before, increased by an average of 36%.

The open-office switch's effect on productivity at OpenCo2 isn't reported in the study. Still, the goal of open offices is to increase face-to-face interaction, and the opposite occurred.

People are not chemicals

Getting people to work more collaboratively by simply forcing them into close physical proximity is clearly not the productivity magic bullet proponents of open offices assert. As the study's authors put it:

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. Until we understand those factors, we may be surprised to find a reduction in F2F collaboration at work even as we architect transparent, open spaces intended to increase it.

Open offices are yet another business trend that has been adopted with gusto — hellooo, standing desks — but perhaps without quite enough research to support such an enthusiastic, unquestioning embrace.

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Keep reading Show less

Science confirms: Earth has more than one 'moon'

Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.

J. Sliz-Balogh, A. Barta and G. Horvath
Surprising Science
  • Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
  • These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
  • The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
Keep reading Show less

6 easy ways to transition to a plant-based diet

Your health and the health of the planet are not indistinguishable.

Credit: sonyakamoz / Adobe Stock
Personal Growth
  • Transitioning to a plant-based diet could help reduce obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
  • Humans are destroying entire ecosystems to perpetuate destructive food habits.
  • Understanding how to properly transition to a plant-based diet is important for success.
Keep reading Show less

Karma doesn't work how most people think it does

Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.

Culture & Religion
  • Karma is not simple retribution for bad deeds.
  • Eastern traditions view karma as part of a cycle of birth and rebirth.
  • Actions and intentions can influence karma, which can be both positive and negative.
Keep reading Show less

What stops people from changing their minds?

A persistent barrage of information is not the best method for getting through to someone with a different point of view.

Scroll down to load more…