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How a lack of privacy is killing open plan office productivity

open plan offices productivity workplace design

Does an office without boundaries create division among workers?

An open-plan office should be a collaborative space, right? A place where workers interact and communicate without hindrance by boundaries such as cubical walls and room dividers. But despite this seemingly obvious statement, the opposite is truer. Open plan office productivity from collaboration is a myth.

A recent study looked at the impact of ‘open’ workspaces on human collaboration. It found that the amount of face-to-face communication dropped by 70% while electronic communication increased by up to 50%.

How was collaboration measured?

Researchers followed two firms during a planned layout change from a cubicle-dominated office to an open plan style. Both firms were Fortune 500 multi-nationals who were about to redesign an office at their head office. The researchers recorded the employee’s behaviours before and after the layout change.

Prior studies looking to measure productivity and collaboration in the workplace have relied upon surveys and activity logging by the workers. This study, by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Havard University, instead employed a wearable tech device or ‘sociometric badge’.

wearable tech measures open plan office productivity

Sociometric badge measures collaboration in the open-plan office

The badge recorded their face-to-face interactions. The devices worked when they came in close proximity to another badge i.e. when the participants were interacting. The aim of the device was to capture a great deal of data:

  • An infrared sensor captured whom they were facing
  • A microphone captured whether they were talking or listening (without recording what was said for privacy).
  • A movement sensor captured body movement and posture
  • Plus a Bluetooth sensor to record their location within the office

The first study had 52 participants (about 40% of the total workers) and monitored them for 15 working days before the transition. The study used a settling-in period of two months to allow for the changes to become embedded. The monitoring of the participants then continued for another 15 days within their new office environment.

A second study further tested the results from the first study. One hundred employees (roughly 45%) agreed to participate and were monitored using the badges.

This time, monitoring of the participants lasted for eight weeks prior to the redesign and eight weeks after the move. This second study also included the two-month settling-in period.

 

What were the open plan office productivity results?

Both studies saw a fall in face-to-face communication decrease of around 70%. Email and messaging went up by between 20% to 50% and accounts for some of that lost interaction. 

It seems that, when working within an open-plan setting, workers would seek to create their own “privacy” by isolating themselves. For example, people wear large headphones to appear busy. Or they choose to use electronic communication forms instead.

There is a basic human desire for privacy. Evidence supports that acting on that desire can help productivity. In other words, we don’t like feeling observed. This study also touches on how ‘collective intelligence’ works. It’s a new concept but there could be an optimum amount of stimulation that promotes higher levels of this type of ‘hive-mind’ intelligence. And open-place offices may be too stimulating.

The study sums up the findings “In short… open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates…”

How to use plants to create more privacy in your workplace

It seems that the best office layouts include a variety of different working spaces. Here are some ideas to easily adapt an existing workspace for better open plan office productivity:

  • Avoid desks where the worker’s back faces a walkway or corridor. It makes employees feel on-show plus its bad Feng Shui.
  • Read our blog on how to use plants are room dividers.
  • Include comfortable seating areas without any desks that promote conversation.
  • Take advantage of the open-plan design to create collaborative areas away from people’s desks.
  • Create privacy screens from office dividers or plants such as bamboo to help workers feel more enclosed.
  • Make sure any open-plan areas aren’t overfilled with desks. Respect your employee’s sense of personal space.
  • Always include private working stations or pods that allow employees to focus on work undisturbed.

Floresy is always ready to help solve any office layout dilemmas using our years of experience with commercial interiors. 

 

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