Open plan offices reduce collaboration? A powerful argument for measuring collaboration

And looking lengthwise towards the kitchen #newstudio by Steve Baty used under CC-BY 2.0

Open plan ≠ collaboration

A recent paper published by two Harvard Academics shows that, in two real world examples, moving to open plan offices reduces collaboration between workers.

In the research the academics used smart badges to measure when two people were talking face to face and interrogated the office email system. They found that face to face interaction decreased between people when they were moved into open office environments, email interaction increased but not enough to compensate.

Is that it for open plan?

Increasing collaboration is not the only reason organisations create open plan offices. In the public sector there is often a significant cost driver, open plan and then flexible (hotdesk) working requires less physical space and can reduce costs. Even so, I doubt many chief executives set out to reduce the degree of collaboration in their organisations.

What jumps out to me from this research is not the fact that open plan offices may not be a panacea. What really jumps out is the fact that companies (in this case) have been making these sorts of dramatic changes without measuring whether they work or not.

Let’s reduce our confidence

Most organisations, certainly in the public sector (though it would seem also in the private) make huge interventions in the way people relate to each other with a blithe and utterly misplaced confidence that they understand the impact it will have on how people relate to each other and the effect on their work.

If only there were another way.

Of course there is. We can understand, quantify and visualise the interactions between employees in and organisation. Email and phone systems will offer up this information readily, simple surveys can add depth and network mathematics can give us deeper insights. In a modern organisation we should understand that we are not dealing with a machine moving resources from one silo to the next but with a complex, adaptive network of living, breathing humans.

Design, implement, test, review

Workplace design would greatly benefit from an understanding of the network now and what conditions the organisation wants to foster in the network of the future. It should, as far as is practical, adaptive and responsive. We should measure the health of the interactions in our organisational network regularly and make small interventions frequently to prune, shape and maintain the quality of the network.

This is something we help public sector organisations with.

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