Study Confirms Open Workspaces Decrease Collaboration

A new study discusses the impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration.
  • A new study fuels the debate over the impact of open offices on interaction and productivity
  • While face-to-face interaction decreased significantly, the study found a corresponding increase in electronic interaction
  • The findings suggest that spatial boundaries “supports collaboration and collective intelligence”

The debate on whether or not open offices encourage or hinder interaction and productivity has so far failed to provide a scientifically based answer. While many argue that open offices increase interaction and collaboration among people, others argue that it hinders productivity levels and increases stress.

The open office concept is born out of the idea that boundaries act as barriers to human interaction. For this reason managers and scholars have been proposing that these boundaries be spanned, permeated, or blurred. This has led to many companies removing the traditional office or cubicle to create “open unbounded offices.” Yet the verdict is still out on whether this works or not.

Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban conducted two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open spaces to empirically examine the effect of these spaces on face-to-face, email, and instant messaging interactions. The study measured the interactions before and after the transition to a more open space.

The study found that “the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.”


The study measured interaction (face-to-face and digital) through the use of wearable sociometric devices.

The first study’s dataset included:

  • 97,778 face-to-face interactions
  • 84,026 emails (sent, received, received by cc, and received by bcc)
  • 25,691 instant messages consisting of 221,426 words.

After analysing the dataset, the researchers found that in the first study, participants spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face.

“Prior to the redesign, they accumulated 5,266 minutes of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 5.8 hours of face to face interaction per person per day. After the redesign, those same people accumulated only 1,492 minutes of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 1.7 hours per person per day.”

While face-to-face interaction decreased, digital interaction increased. “Participants collectively sent 56% more emails to other participants over 15 days, received 20% more emails from other participants, and were cc’dd on 41% more emails from other participants.

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    “IM message activity increased by 67% and words sent by IM increased by 75%.”

    In other words, it seems that in open workspaces digital interaction replaces that of face-to-face.

    Bernstein and Turban also reported that executives of the company reported that “productivity, as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the redesign to eliminate spatial boundaries.”

    The second study tracked the interactions of 100 employees. Similar to the first study’s findings, individuals tracked spent between 67% and 71% less time interacting face-to-face, while their online interactions increased between 22% and 50%.

    Is this surprising?

    For those familiar with sociological theory, it is. This theory “presents a strong argument that removing spatial boundaries to bring more people into contact should increase collaboration and collective intelligence.

    On the other hand, the results aren’t shocking to “organizational scholars, especially social psychologists and environmental psychologists, [who] have shown that removing spatial boundaries can decrease collaboration and collective intelligence.” This is further supported by the notion that “spatial boundaries built into workspace architecture support collaboration and collective intelligence by mitigating the effects of the cognitive constraints of the human beings working within them.”

    The above explains to a certain extent why users of open workspaces are “choosing to isolate themselves as best as they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones).”

    Bernstein and Turban’s study concluded that “transparent offices may be overstimulating and thus decrease organizational productivity.”

    Suggested reading: how our bodies and nervous system responds to overstimulated environments.

    Research study used: Bernstein ES, Turban S. 2018 The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration.Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373: 20170239.

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