Busting Myths About Open Office Spaces
In an era where the nature of work is changing; where technologies disrupt industries and usual ways of working – it is an increasing trend to remove boundaries and have open work spaces in order to stimulate collaboration and collective intelligence. Does this really work?
Sociology studies argue that removing spatial boundaries to bring more people into contact will increase collaboration because the increase in proximity people have with each other in an open office also increase the exchange of information. In addition, such interaction is necessary for a group’s general ability to perform a wide variety of tasks, which is better in comparison when one works on their own to complete them.
However, there are also conflicting arguments that show removing spatial boundaries can decrease collaboration and collective intelligence. Having spatial boundaries played a functional role by helping people make sense of their environment and help them focus. With such partitions, the potential for distractions is reduced, hence creating increase in efficiency.
Empirical field studies have shown open, unbounded offices reduce face-to-face interaction with a magnitude of about 70%, with electronic interaction taking up at least some of this slack, increasing by roughly 20% to 50%. This is because even in an open working space, employees often choose to to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones to appear as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).
Therefore, open office architecture does not necessarily promote open interaction. Humans still have that innate desire for privacy – so when office architecture makes everyone more observable, it can dampen face-to-face interaction. Employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, they would send an email instead of having an in-person conversation.
Transitions to open office architecture can have different effects on different channels of interaction, such as increase in email interaction, which may actually lower productivity. Also, there are findings which demonstrate how “transparent” offices may be overstimulating and thus decrease organisational productivity, whereas small, group size maximises decision accuracy in complex, realistic environments.
In summary, while it may seem on the surface that open office space creates an atmosphere of creativity and greater incidences of interaction between employees, there are many factors that one has to consider before deciding on open office space being the most productive.