How Open Offices Can Discourage Employee Communication

October 25, 2019

In recent years, many companies have gotten rid of cubicles in favor of open office plans that place everyone in sight. The idea is that employees will be more available for communication when they aren’t constricted by barriers. According to a recent study published by Harvard Business Review, however, open office plans could actually be having the opposite effect. Researchers tracked the physical and digital interactions of employees at two Fortune 500 companies that were in the process of switching from cubicles to open offices. Once the transitions were complete, the study found that face-to-face interactions dropped by more than 70 percent while digital interactions increased.

Although open offices theoretically present employees with more opportunities to interact, they also provide staffers with a number of ways to avoid communication. For instance, some employees will give the impression that they are so involved in a task they should not be disturbed. Others simply avoid eye contact with their colleagues or suddenly head to the bathroom or break room to steer clear of unwanted conversations. This extends to the digital sphere as well: employees can respond to an email or Slack message in their own time, if they choose to respond at all. As a result, employees become less engaged with the work of their peers, which can lead to more communication problems in the long term. 

To prevent issues like these from occurring, the study recommends that companies do their research before committing to an open office plan. For example, a major financial firm recently tested a number of office designs to find the best fit, eventually settling on a plan that incorporated elements of open offices with traditional formats. While conducting this research cost millions of dollars, the firm could have lost much more if it implemented the wrong kind of office plan. 

Questions:

  1. How do open office plans potentially discourage employees from communicating?
  2. What can companies do to avoid implementing the wrong kind of office plan?

Source: Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber, “The Truth About Open Offices,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019. Photo by K2 Space.

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