Open-plan offices have taken off because of a desire to increase interaction and collaboration among workers. But an innovative new study has found employees in open-plan offices spend 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions. Email and messaging use shot up by over 67 per cent.
The study is the first to track the impacts of open-plan offices using objective measures of communication. It used electronic badges and microphones to monitor interactions among employees and tracked changes in email use.
The findings build on previous research, which has found, for instance, open-plan work environments compromise employees' ability to focus and concentrate on their work.
Theoretically there are good reasons to move to an open-plan office. Our social environment plays a big role in our ability to be proactive and motivated. And success in modern workplaces is often driven by how well individuals interact with each other and with the organisation.
Research has shown that the time employees spend on "collaborative activities" has "ballooned by 50 per cent or more" in the past two decades.
Workplaces that facilitate more frequent and higher-quality contact with others have been shown to have improved communication and collaboration on tasks, job satisfaction and social support.
But despite the pursuit of collaboration in workplaces, the need for concentration and focused individual work is also increasing.
And research shows that when employees can't concentrate, they tend to communicate less. They may even become indifferent to their co-workers.
Being able to focus on a task without interruption or distraction is an essential foundation for effective work.
Research suggests that poor office design can have unintended consequences - increasing the cognitive load on workers through high density or low privacy, both of which increase distraction.
In many open-plan offices, the drive for increased interaction and collaboration comes at the expense of the ability to focus and concentrate.
When distraction makes it hard for employees to focus, cognitive and emotional resources are depleted.
The result is increasing stress and errors, undermining performance.
When employees can't concentrate on their work, their desire to interact and collaborate with others is reduced.
New research also suggests that increased crowding in the workplace and low levels of privacy lead to defensive behaviours and strain workplace relationships.
Emerging research has shown that individuals view similar work environments differently. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, as is traditional in open-plan design, work environments should provide various options that support employees working effectively.
Evolving models of workplace design are seeking to achieve this, by providing different zones for different types of work and different needs.
Many employers are heavily focused on driving collaboration and interaction at the expense of privacy and concentration. This has negative outcomes for both productivity and work relationships.
Organisations should focus on providing workplaces that support the requirements for privacy and focus, as well as interaction and collaboration.
• Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Bond Business School