What the Debate Between Open and Closed Offices Gets Wrong

Turn on the news on any given day, and you’re likely to hear about a “new study” that completely changes the way we look at things. Taken on the surface, this presents a world where one day red wine is both panacea and fountain of youth, and another day it’s the harbinger of cancer and death.

In the workplace design industry, this phenomenon has manifested itself in recent weeks with a cry that the “open workplace is bad” based on a study recently published by the Royal Society.

This is good news if you’re looking for a proclaimed scientific study to back up a belief that the open workplace is wholly bad. The bad news, however, is that using this study to simply say “an open workplace is a bad workplace,” misapplies the conclusion of the study. The truth, as it turns out, isn’t quite so simple.

The Open Office Workplace Study

In summary, this study concentrated on two groups of people within two organizations that were experiencing a workplace change. A subset of volunteers from each group wore a data gathering device that measured their physical interaction (i.e. labeled as ‘collaboration’) shortly before and shortly after the move into their new workplace. The new workplace was labeled as ‘open,’ creating an undefined assumption that the previous workplace must have been ‘closed.’ The singular stated goal of the strategy for the ‘open’ design was to increase collaboration, assumed best as produced in face-to-face interaction.

The key result of the data measured a 70% drop in face-to-face interaction, thus producing the hypothesis that open environments damaged collaboration.

But it’s not so simple. There are several limitations of the study that the hasty hypothesis fails to address.

Limitation One:  Evaluation of design should use universally understood terminology and valid measurements.

Because research often seeks to uncover patterns, chart variables and project future outcomes, it’s fairly common for studied scenarios to be reduced to numerical values and absolutes that can be neatly graphed and charted.

Yet human behavior is rarely neat and often can’t be accurately reduced to numerical values without risking a reductionist approach that fails to recognize the nuance that goes into every human action.

This study, at its foundation, supposed that productivity is a measurable absolute that is equally understood and shared by all. This isn’t the case. Productivity doesn’t have a universal definition. A manager may define productivity as the volume of work an employee produces, while the employee could be measuring their productivity based on whether or not they hit respective deadlines. Meanwhile, the team across the hall might be measuring productivity in terms of absenteeism and time spent on non-work-related tasks.

For their part, the researchers in this study measured productivity through monitoring behavior on company email, instant messaging systems and face-to-face interactions. This approach, itself, was based on yet another study that suggested that interactions other than those that are face-to-face are somehow inherently less productive.

Based on these monitors, researchers measured that the open office led to a 70% reduction of face-to-face interactions and, therefore, hypothesized decreased productivity. They charted 52 employee’s instant messaging behavior across 30 days and 221,426 messages to give the illusion that precise data yields a precise conclusion.

If the specific companies involved in the study measured productivity by the quantity of digital interactions against the quantity of face-to-face interactions, this measurement might have some level of accuracy. Yet, the fact remains that the quantity of face-to-face interactions as a measure of productivity is grossly incomplete, therefore the findings that an open office somehow universally precipitates a drop in productivity is deeply flawed.

Limitation Two: Design strategy should control for personal biases

Workplace design, when done correctly, is a strategic process that sets the foundation for company culture, identity and interaction. It communicates expectations to employees and a vision to visitors. That’s why it’s important to establish goals and objectives for the design of a workplace that individual choices can be measured against, helping to control for the relative subjectivity of personal taste.

Determining the success of any workplace design—including questions of open and closed designs—can’t rely simply on the assessment of any one individual, any one work type, or any one management approach; especially when assessing attitudes toward required work changes.

Change, itself, is a chaotic endeavor. Many people resist change—sometimes violently—out of fear that they will somehow lose something in the process. There’s an immediate bias against large changes.

It’s no wonder, then, why managers reported at the end of the study an overall drop in their team’s productivity following a transition from a closed office to one that is open. When considering workplace design, however, self-reported productivity is open to many questions of human bias and understanding.

  • Did managers begrudge losing an office in a switch to an open environment, potentially incentivizing a perceived failure for the change to produce results?
  • Did managers perceive that employee’s initial reaction to chase necessarily netted a loss in productivity?
  • How do managers define productivity?
  • What role do managers believe face-to-face interaction play in productivity?

These last two questions raise further concerns with the argument that research shows an open office leads to lowered productivity.

Other limitations exist

By now, you can start to see how the reports of the demise of the open office have been greatly exaggerated. Like most things in the workplace, taking a step back reveals a much bigger picture full of nuance. This is only a first look at two of the limitations of this study. Later, we’ll take a look at other limitations that should be considered.