Royal Society research: another nail in the coffin of open plan?

The received design wisdom on going open plan is that it improves face-to-face communication. Not so, according to a surprising new study from Harvard Business School

Is 2018 turning out to be the year in which the global court of opinion finally turns against open plan office layouts? After a long period of argument and mounting evidence against the effectiveness of open plan, a new study from two academics at Harvard Business School has produced research showing that the introduction of open plan spaces does not increase face-to-face communication and interaction at work as so often claimed.

‘Levels of face-to-face interaction deteriorate dramatically…’

On the contrary, levels of face-to-face interaction actually deteriorate dramatically when people switch from cubicles to open plan, according to a paper by Harvard’s Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban entitled ‘The Impact of the “Open” Workspace on Human Collaboration’.

What’s even worse for advocates of open plan is that the study has been published in one of the most prestigious academic publications possible, the British research journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, which is the oldest scholarly journal in the world dating back to the 1660s.

Two decisive interventions

In the study, Bernstein and Turban looked at communication patterns of employees inside two large corporate organisations making the shift from cubicles to open plan. Using socio-metric badges with sensor technology, the researchers collected accurate data on what human interaction took place, where and with whom over two periods – for three weeks before the change to open plan and for three weeks some three months after the switch. They also collected the volume of email and instant messaging traffic over the same two periods of research intervention.

The results were unambiguous – and hard for defenders of open plan to dress up in any positive way. The volume of face-to-face interaction fell by around 70 per cent in both organisations, with a corresponding increase in electronic interaction. As the researchers observed: ‘In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and instead interact over email and IM (instant messaging).’

Conclusive evidence

One could perhaps blame the surprising results on bad design or poor implementation of open plan in the candidate organisations going open plan. Superior schemes might not have produced such a monumental collapse in direct social engagement.

Nevertheless such conclusive evidence undermines the idea that open plan office environments automatically encourage more teamwork and interaction. Instead the study suggests that when people feel their privacy is being compromised, they compensate in other ways – by putting on large headphones and resorting to email, for example.

‘Pouring cold water on the idea of open plan as a magic bullet…’

If the case for going open plan is to be more than just about cutting real estate costs, then new design strategies will be required to shore up face-to-face communication. Certainly the Harvard researchers pour a bucket of cold water on the idea that open plan is some kind of magic bullet offering lower costs at the same time as achieving more direct collaboration – their empirical evidence suggests there must be some kind of trade-off when spatial barriers are removed in the office.

In 2018, the bad news for open plan just keeps coming.

The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration, Ethan S. Bernstein, Stephen Turban (2018). Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2018 373 20170239; DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0239. Published 2 July 2018. See paper here.