Open space, “closed” attitude

Open space offices were created as common working areas where ideas can circulate easier than in classic places with cubicles. Or so we thought. But the real and the ideal don’t always coincide and facts lead to an unexpected direction.

Let’s be clear, teamwork is not overrated. It’s just that employees generally prefer intimacy in their private space more over the absence of barriers. So, paradoxically, face to face interactions diminished because workers are more likely to use instant messaging systems.

A “classic” office with cubicles

Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban of the Harvard Business School conducted a study in five hundred companies in transition from traditional to open space offices. As a result, they found out – thanks to electronic devices able to catch visual contacts without recording conversations – that direct approaches decreased by 70%.

During the first two weeks with cubicles the average eye contact time was 5.8 hours per day. In the following two weeks, when transition to opens space was completed, the average was down to 1.7 hours. At the same time, instant messages has risen by 67%, e-mails by 56% and they were 75% longer.

The two scholars realized that open space offices are overstimulating. Too many distractions, too many info, people moving, eyes that inevitably end up on the colleague’s monitor, ears that can do nothing but listen.

camera cafe

A frame from the French (and original) version of Caméra Café, a tragicomic parody of life in an office

Basically, the fear of being “spied” make the workers close in themselves. Another factor, according to Bernstein and Turban, is that seeing a coworker busy is a disincentive for questions or requests which would brutally interrupt the working rhythm, with disadvantages for productivity.

Obviously quality is more important than quantity also when it comes to interactions. Giants like Apple or Facebook are massive users of open space offices, but of course not every company reaches their levels. In the meantime new theories to better up relationships are getting elaborated. For example, a balance between common and private spaces or giving the employees the opportunity to work from home. Without staying trapped in the tragicomic hell mocked by the (originally) French sit-com Caméra Café.


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