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Noisy, Disruptive and Now, Not Even Collaborative

March 5th, 2019

interior of an open office

Here's another blow against open floorplans: they don't improve face-to-face collaboration.

That was one of the leading reasons why companies tore out partitions and even eliminated assigned workspaces. It didn't hurt that open offices also cost less to furnish, a reason tech startups adopted the concept.

But then studies began to find these offices were noisier and that workers experienced more disruptions and higher levels of stress. The belief was strong, however, that the openness encouraged greater collaboration and sparked creativity.

Now, what appears to be the only objective study of the actual type and amount of interaction published by The Royal Study debunks the face-to-face collaboration belief. Using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers, the researchers studied the level of interaction in two companies transition to an open layout.

What they found was, "Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.

"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 interact instead over email and IM."

The researchers also suggest that open layouts also don't promote what they call "collective intelligence." "While the earliest work assumed open spaces would promote collective intelligence among humans, our findings support more recent work that has begun to suggest otherwise... open, ‘transparent’ offices may be overstimulating and thus decrease organizational productivity."

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