Talking a Closer Look at the Open Office

It’s never been easier for workers to collaborate—or so it seems. Open, flexible, activity-based spaces are displacing cubicles, making people more visible. Messaging is displacing phone calls, making people more accessible. Enterprise social media such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are displacing watercooler conversations, making people more connected. Virtual-meeting software such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Webex is displacing in-person meetings, making people ever-present. The architecture of collaboration has not changed so quickly since technological advances in lighting and ventilation made tall office buildings feasible, and one could argue that it has never before been so efficient. Designing workplaces for interaction between two or more individuals seems to be the way of the future. But as the physical and technological structures for omnichannel collaboration have spread, evidence suggests they are producing behaviors at odds with designers’ expectations and business managers’ desires. In a number of workplaces we have observed for research projects or consulting assignments, those structures have produced less interaction—or less meaningful interaction—not more.


The Architecture and the Anatomy of Collaboration

Workers are surrounded by a physical architecture: individual offices, cubicles, or open seating; a single floor, multiple floors, or multiple buildings; a dedicated space for the organization, a space shared with other companies, or a home office. That physical architecture is paired with a digital architecture: email, enterprise social media, mobile messaging, and so forth. But although knowledge workers are influenced by this architecture, they decide, individually and collectively, when to interact. Even in open spaces with colleagues in close proximity, people who want to eschew interactions have an amazing capacity to do so. They avoid eye contact, discover an immediate need to use the bathroom or take a walk, or become so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (perhaps with the help of headphones). Ironically, the proliferation of ways to interact makes it easier not to respond: For example, workers can simply ignore a digital message.

When employees do want to interact, they choose the channel: face-to-face, video conference, phone, social media, email, messaging, and so on. Someone initiating an exchange decides how long it should last and whether it should be synchronous (a meeting or a huddle) or asynchronous (a message or a post). The recipient of, say, an email, a Slack message, or a text decides whether to respond immediately, down the road, or never. These individual behaviors together make up an anatomy of collaboration similar to an anthill or a beehive. It is generated organically as people work and is shaped by the beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of thinking that define the organization’s culture. Architecture is easy to observe—you just look at blueprints, models, technology, or the space around you. Until recently the anatomy of collaboration was hard to observe. But technology has made it possible to detect and analyze the flows of communication. Sensors are all the rage. Sensors in chairs measure how long workers are at their desks. Sensors in the floor measure when and how they move. Sensors in RFID badges and smartphones track where they go. Sensors (in the form of video cameras) track whom they are with. Panasonic has added WiFi sensors to lighting systems, which can monitor face-to-face interactions across entire buildings and workplaces.


“When the firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%.”


Another way to detect interactions is by collecting the digital “breadcrumbs” people leave when they book a meeting, send an email, open a browser window, post on Slack or Teams, or make a call, thanks to systems designed to save communication metadata. Increasingly, employers can use advanced analytics tools to study that data to understand employees’ collective behaviors. Algorithms that assess workers’ movements and interactions can learn to distinguish collaboration from mere copresence. Ones that analyze workers’ past behaviors can learn to predict their next moves, individually and collectively, and estimate the probability of a valuable collision between people.

These advances have allowed us to confirm something many people have suspected: Collaboration’s architecture and anatomy are not lining up. Using advanced wearables and capturing data on all electronic interactions, we—along with Stephen Turban, one of Ethan’s former students, who is currently at Fulbright University Vietnam—tracked face-to-face and digital interactions at the headquarters of two Fortune 500 firms before and after the companies transitioned from cubicles to open offices. We chose the most representative workplaces we could find; we waited until people had settled into their new spaces to track their postmove interactions; and, for accuracy, we varied the length of time over which we tracked them. With the first company, we collected data for three weeks before the redesign, starting one month prior, and for three weeks roughly two months after it. With the second, we collected data for eight weeks before the redesign, starting three months prior, and for eight weeks roughly two months after it. We aligned our data-collection periods with seasonal business cycles for apples-to-apples comparisons—for example, we collected data during the same weeks of the quarter. We found that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate.

Why did that happen? The work of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot suggests an answer. He wrote that performers should “imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.” He called this the fourth wall. It prevents actors from being distracted by the audience and allows them to divorce themselves from what they cannot control (the audience) and focus only on what they can (the scene), much as a basketball player shoots the ball without really seeing the cheering (or booing) fans behind the hoop. It creates the intimacy of what some call public solitude. The larger the audience, the more important the fourth wall.

People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues come to respect it. If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her. If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots him a look of annoyance, he won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly.



Work Well Daily Team

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