people working in a busy open office
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If you’ve worked in an open office, then you probably have your thoughts (and feels) about the ways they fail to live up to the buzzy hype.

The thing is, these inklings we have that open offices might not make our work—or lives—better? They’re backed by research. Studies have shown, for example, that open offices lost out to enclosed offices on measures including noise level and privacy. They’ve told us that employees who moved to open offices reported less satisfaction with their environment, more physical stress and discomfort, and a negative impact on team relationships that didn’t get better after an initial adjustment period.



Most recently, a new study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B dug deeper and used sensors and microphones to demonstrate that moving to an open office actually reduced face-to-face interactions by about 70% and increased the amount of communication employees had over email and instant messaging.

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration,” the researchers, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Harvard, wrote in the study, “open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.”

And unlike many other studies, this one didn’t rely on workers perceptions of their new space, it actually captured data about how people’s behavior changed when their office did.

“Many managers and executives seem to believe that open offices will both lower costs and improve interactions,” Bernstein said in an interview about the research published on the Harvard Business School website. “My hope is that this research throws a bucket of ice water on the idea that there’s no tradeoff,” he added. In general, “the open office space ‘revolution’ has gone too far.”



The research only looked at two examples of moves to open offices. So it doesn’t tell us whether different designs, company practices, or other factors might’ve produced different results. Bernstein acknowledges that “there might be other things a manager could do to mitigate the potential negative impact on interactions.”

Nevertheless, despite the growing pile of evidence that not all open offices are accomplishing what they’re intended to, yours isn’t likely to vanish overnight. Sorry! But there’s plenty you can do to make the best of what you’ve got (and downplay the worst).

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