In this article, I plan to highlight negatives results of open offices spaces and offer guidance on carrying out experiments to reveal how your staff actually interact.
In case you missed it, here is the article with research on why open office spaces are not as effective as managers and those who designed them would like.
The Structure and Mechanics of Collaboration
Physical architecture surrounds the people working: cubicles, open seating, or individual offices; an individual floor, multiple floors, or several buildings; a dedicated place for the company, a place the company shares with other businesses, or an office at home. This physical architecture is combined with a digital one as well: enterprise social media, email, messaging on the phone, etc.
However, even though this setup influences knowledge workers, they choose, as individuals and as a group, the times that they interact with each other. Even while working in open spaces with coworkers who are in close proximity to them, those who prefer to eschew interactions with others possess a phenomenal capacity to avoid those interactions. They can avoid making eye contact with coworkers. They can discover a sudden, pressing urge to go to the bathroom. They can get up to take a walk so that their body doesn’t become sore from sitting too much. Alternatively, they can become so engrossed in their current project/task that they have selective hearing (perhaps, through the assistance of headphones). Ironically, the increase and spread of methods of interaction makes it even easier to not answer coworkers. Coworkers simply choose to ignore instant messages or emails.
When employees are interested in interacting, they pick the method: video conference, face-to-face, social media, phone call, instant message, email, etc. Someone starting an exchange chooses how long they want it to last and whether to make the interaction synchronous (a meeting/huddle) or asynchronous (a post/message). The recipient of the communication decides whether they want to provide an immediate response, one later on, or never. These behaviors collectively form the mechanics behind collaboration. It is produced organically through the work that people do and is formed through the assumptions, values, beliefs, and thought process that define the culture of the organization.
It’s easy to witness architecture—all you need to do is look at models, blueprints, space around you, or the technology. Until recently the mechanics behind collaborating were difficult to observe. However, technology has helped to make it possible to analyze and detect the way that communication flows.
The use of sensors has become all the rage. Now sensors are present in chairs to study how long employees spend time at their desks. The floors have sensors to measure how and when workers move. Smartphones and RFID badges also carry sensors to track where employees go. Cameras use sensors to study and track who people are with. Lighting systems now have sensors because Panasonic has put WiFi sensors in them for organizations to monitor interactions that happen face-to-face across workplaces and entire buildings.
Face-to-face interactions dropped by 70% after businesses changed workspaces to open offices.
Another method for studying interactions is through gathering digital “breadcrumbs” employees create when they send an email, setup a meeting, open a browser window on their computer, make a phone call, or create a post via Teams or Slack.
These systems save the metadata of communication. Increasingly, employers have the option to leverage analytics tools to study such metadata to understand the way their employees behave individually and as a group. There are algorithms that assess the movements of workers and their interactions with each other to learn to distinguish between collaboration and mere copresence. Those who analyze the past behaviors of their workers can learn to predict how they will move in the future, both as a group and individually. They can also determine the likelihood of a valuable collaboration between their employees.
Such advancements have enabled us to confirm that which many people have long suspected: the architecture and mechanics of collaboration are not in line with each other. Gathering data from all electronic exchanges and leveraging advanced wearables, digital exchanges and face-to-face interactions were tracked at the headquarters of two large corporations prior to and after these businesses changed from using cubicles to working in open offices. The most representative places of work that we could find were chosen. We waited for employees to settle into their new work spaces to study they way they interacted post-move. For the sake of accuracy, we tracked them over varied amounts of time. For the first organization, we gathered the info for 3 weeks prior to the company’s workspace redesign, starting from 1 month beforehand. With the second organization, we gathered info for 8 weeks prior to the transition to an open workspace, starting 3 months beforehand. We lined up our collection of data with periods of seasonal business cycles to get comparisons that are apples-to-apples. We found that in-person interactions fell by about seventy percent after transitioning to open offices, and electronic communications increased to compensate.
Why did this occur? Simple. Colleagues with open offices build a fourth wall, and their coworkers learn to respect it. If an employee is intently working, people try not to bother that person. If somebody begins a conversation and a colleague has a look of frustration on his/her face, that person won’t try starting a conversation again. Especially when working in open spaces, the norm of a fourth-wall spreads fast.
In the next article, I intend to discuss how to support and improve the productivity of your employees.