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

Ben Proctor
Jul 13, 2018 · 2 min read
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.

Thanks for reading.

Please clap if you liked this, it gives me a sense of enormous wellbeing.

And please do follow me on Twitter.

I work at The Satori Lab.

You might be interested in our services.

We’re on LinkedIn and Facebook too.

The Satori Lab

Learning how to deliver public services in the connected age and sharing what we learn. Our newsletter is awesome too

Ben Proctor

Written by

Data and digital innovation director at Data Orchard CIC helping make non-profit organisations awesome at using data. Like maps, open data, dogs, bikes & boats.

The Satori Lab

Learning how to deliver public services in the connected age and sharing what we learn. Our newsletter is awesome too

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store