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358. Yes, the Open Office Is Terrible — But It Doesn’t Have to Be

2018-11-14 | 🔗

It began as a post-war dream for a more collaborative and egalitarian workplace. It has evolved into a nightmare of noise and discomfort. Can the open office be saved, or should we all just be working from home?

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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Imagine that an open office produces better interaction and more collaboration. Would it be nice to know if this were true, but these people wanted to learn. I'm even bursting. I'm innocent professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. My name is Stephen Turban. I am a reason graduate Harvard College, I currently work for a global management. Consultancy. Ok, so we're here to talk about a paper that you co, authored, called the impact of the open workspace on human collaboration. I dont think I realized how much anger there was against open offices until the research. I was poor Blushed and I was contacted by number of friends and colleagues about their own offices and their deep deeper emotional scarring. There is certainly a population of people out there who hate. I think that's
even not strong enough and not strong enough Irene, but proceed, please. It's just people find it impossible to get work done. Demoralising also the lack of privacy and the feeling that they are being watched by others. Privacy tends to give us licence, to be more experimental, to potentially find opportune for good, this improvement to avoid distractions that might take us away from the focused we have on our work Ethan is really, I would say, the king of privacy. My research, Time has been about the increasingly transparent workplace and its impact on human behaviour and therefore performance I've over time and asked the question: what about the open office? How does an impact the way in which people work and collaborate? I haven't had an empirical answer
in search of an empirical answer. Bernstein turban began a study of to fortune five hundred companies that were converting from cubicles to open offices. Sure the downsides of an open office are obvious. Lack of privacy. Having over here. Everything you're coworkers say, but what? If the downsides are offset via grand flowering of collaboration and communication and idea generation. What if the open office is in fact, a brilliant concept that we ve all been falsely today on for economics, radio will hear what this new research has to say. So the city had two main conclusions here. Why it so hard to design one office that works for everything about half of our time is spent in focused moved a little over. A quarter of our time is working with. Others
person in about twenty percent as working with others virtually, and we ask the all important question: what's wrong with just working from home, you know the three great enemies of working from home is the fridge. The bed the television I'm happy from stature and debonnair productions. This is great economic, radio, the explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your house, Stephen Definite the office is such acquainted central emblem of modern society that it may seem it's been around forever. But of course it hasn't. You know,
Economy of the United States was based on farming it is based on manufacturing and so the This was almost an afterthought. That's new kills of all the author of a book called Cubed secret history of the workplace, and so people that will offices are essentially paperwork factories, so we should just sort of array them in an assembly line sort of formation. This meant big room filled with long rows of desks and scattered on the periphery private offices for the managers, this factory model, which gotta start in the late night century came to be known as the american plan, and it standard office form for decades, at least in the? U S, but then in the middle of the twentieth century. In Germany There are two brothers, the Schnell brothers who began to wonder about the nature of the american plan. There is a sense that this was
arbitrary, and there is no real reason to lay out an office in this way. In nineteen, fifty eight Wolfgang and ever hard Shinola created the quick born or consulting group with the idea of bringing some intention to modern office design, then one of the ideas the came to them was that in office is not like factory it's actually a different kind of workplace and requires its own sort of system, and so maybe There is a reason to have asks in rows. Maybe there is a reason for people to have private offices at all, if essentially the office is not about producing things, but it's about producing ideas and about producing communication among different people and so over time they pioneered concept, that they called the bugle alone shaft or office landscape and was essentially the first truly open plan.
This the idea was to create an office, it was more collaborative and more egalitarian. It looks extremely chaotic. You just have desks and cluster Cindy Data seem to be arranged in a pretty haphazard form, but in fact there was rigorous planning around and in a way that would facilitate communication and the flow of people and ideas in it. We made its way to England and the United States, and it was considered at an incredible break through a breakthrough. Perhaps, but the earliest open offices drew complaints similar to the ones we here today lots of it's by not instituting a barrier between people by now, having doors by not having any way of of controlling The way sound travelled in the office it stopped vessel attaining the thing, it was. Mr Facilitate, which was communication because it became harder to communicate in an office environment, were phones were ringing off the hook where you could hear typewriters across the room and things like that
wasn't actually the utopian space that it promised to be, in fact, it was deeply debilitating in some ways for the kind of work that we wanted to do. Meanwhile, there was an American named Robert Probes, working for the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Michigan He was not himself train the designer he was sort of like a freelance thinker. Props was intrigued by the office landscape idea, its openness a gala tyrian aspirations, but he also appreciated its practical shortcomings, He decided to turn to experts to anthropologists, to social psychologists. Do people of that nature after some research, came to the conclusion that individuals are well there, individuals and then more control over the workspace. He
the designer George Nelson, came up with a new design in which each office worker would be surrounded by a suite of objects to help them work better. In nineteen sixty four Herman Miller debuted, the action off there was a standing desk arise. Yellow des these sad and a telephone booth design critics loved the action office. It looked incredible but whose very expensive and very few managers, wanted to spend this kind of money on their employees. So they went back to the drawing board. They tried to come up with something cheaper nineteen. Gate, Herman Miller, released the action office to end. It was this three walled space, these fabric, wrapped walls that were angled and they were meant to include.
Those as swedish furniture, and it was meant to mitigate the kind of chaos that an open off his plan might otherwise have you may know the action office to by its more generic name, which is the cubicle. The cubicle promised a variety of advantages. It's meant to be very flexible and it can form an impromptu conference room and it was meant to, tied up in open off his plan in a way to mitigate the kind of chaos that an open off his plan or an off his landscape. Otherwise have and it was incurred that may well received. It was copied by number furniture companies and doing it was spreading in office is everywhere, but the cubicle could also be exploited. It became a perfect tool for cramming.
More and more workers into less and less space very cheaply, and so that the whole notion of what progress is trying to do what you like to give a worker a space that they can control, was turned into in to the exact opposite. It was clear. That his concept had become the muslim symbol of office life. Indeed, the Revolutionary freedom giving cubicle came to be as a sort of corporate version of solitary confinement, this left Robert protest most unhappy. And he blamed managers. He blames people who, in a word, were not enlightened that that created what he called bear. Rattle environments. Robert protest lake, the Schnell brothers before him, had not quite succeeded in creating a vibrant and
efficient, open office there, new environments introduced new problems, chaos in the first case cubicles in the second, as with many problems that we humans tried to correct whether in office, culture or society at large. The correct turns out to be an overreaction, unintended consequences, leap out and humble us, and yet, in this case the fact is that most offices today are still open, offices? Why are we holding onto this concept, if make so many people so unhappy? If you're, looking purely at a cost per square foot, been open office is, is cheaper, Stephen Turban again and hears Ethan Bernstein again. There are a lot of people whether their managers are employees who, like the open office burn, seen admits that managers are primarily impressed by the cost savings of an open office but
some employees, some employers like it because they have visions of it being more vibrant, more interactive, knew that that fun, noisy experiential placed their hoping for what to take down the walls and make everyone able to see each other and there's also been push rounds these visions, that of immersion Social sciences. How do you create he's random interactions between people that sport, creativity, collision is a term. You hear a lot in office design and the design of public spaces. Generally, it's the promise that unpaid encounters? Can we do good things between coworkers or neighbours even strangers conversations, otherwise wouldn't have happened. The exchange of ideas unfair. Seen collaboration now. The office is plainly a different sort of space from the public square. The office is primarily concerned with productivity. We'd all like to be happy
in our offices, but is it may be worth surrendering a bit of happiness and privacy and so on for the sake of higher productivity, after all, that's or being paid for? If you want to have a certain kind of interaction, its deep, gave in idea generation or in something that requires us to have lots of cortical band with between each other, it's nice to have that face to face interaction face if these conversations are so important. That's been we he's the ceo of an organizational analytics company called human eyes. What we do is Use data about how people interact and collaborative work, think email, tat meeting data, but also sensor data about how people interact in the real world, and we use that understand, really what goes on inside companies humanize has developed socio metric idee badges embedded with sensors to capture these data
We have by far the largest dataset on workplace interaction in the world, in what do the data say about face to face communication? all of our research. That is consistently been the most predictive factor of almost any organizational. How can we can think of performance? Job satisfaction, retention, you name it. I mean people here off for millions of years to interact and a face to face way were used to Malta he's an facial expression in small changes in tone of voice and that produce the important in war contexts where high levels of trust, especially work, it's more more complex and the things we build and make together or more more complex. Really having that trust and be able to convey really rich information, is critical. Bernstein Turban also believe in the value of face to face communication. Nuance communication around here. Isn't it propose, I have here, is a thought I had
about how this last meeting went, that is very rich You want from me communication and most delicious suggest that this communication is much better at that sociologists have suggested for a long time. The propinquity breeds interaction, propinquity being co, location being close to one another, the clue or two people are together on the more likely they it interacts more likely they are to get married, the they are to work together and interaction. Being we will have a conversation, we will actually get some kind of collaboration between the two of us You can look at slouching shoulders. You can see what is their facial expression and back is a lot of us information that is really hard to convey
how good you are democracies- and- let me tell you, I am pretty good at emerges. Ok so face to face. Communication is important least for some purposes and in some dimensions and an open office is designed to facilitate more face to face communication. So does it work that was the same the question of Bernstein and Turban study. So in your study there are two companies that were transitioning to open office.
For so, can you reveal the identity of one or both those companies? I can't in order to do this study we had to agree to a level of confidentiality. I will say that we had a choice of sites to study and we chose the two that we thought would be most representative of the kind of work we were interested in, which is white collar work in professional settings fortune. Five hundred companies. Can you give us some detailed? It helps us envision the kind of office and what the activities are. If you work in a global headquarters amongst a series of functions like H, are, or finance or legal or sales or marketing, this would describe your work setting
and can you describe after, the two companies that you studied they moved to open office is what was their configuration beforehand? Everyone was in cubicles and then they move to an open space that basically mimicked that, but just without the cubicle, whilst those barriers went down- and so you could, you could see if John was sitting, to Sally before, and there was a wall between them that you know John could cuz. He sounds like to see John, and that's that was the big, the big difference between the original Andy the office afterwards. So tell us about the experiment. I want to know all kinds of things like how many people were involved. Did they opt in or not wear that was a randomized and that how the data were gathered and so on the map
If we had fifty two participants are second, we had a hundred participants and we wanted to measure communication. Before and after the move, we started with the most simple empirical puzzle we could start with, which was simply how much interaction takes place between the individual's before and after we wanted is purely see. If this hypothesis of a vibrant open office were true, so before the move, and we gave each of the participants symmetric badges. These are the badges we mentioned earlier from human eyes. So they contain several sensors. One is a microphone. One is an eye our centre, to show whether not their facing another batch accelerometer to show movement and they have a blue to censor to show location. So you can get a data point which looks like John again spoken Sally for for twenty five minutes.
At two p m, but I don't know anything about what the content. The conversation is. The number of previous studies that have used these socio metric badges, have shown that we are very aware of them for the first say few minutes that we have them on and after that we sort of forget there. There, you right The microphone is only registering that people talk and not boarding or monitoring what they say. Do you think the employees who wore them believe that I mean, if I think, there's one percent chance at my firm is monitoring or recording what I'm saying, I'm quite likely to say less yes, well, it's. Actually,
Funny question, because in this case we really weren't but look we phrase the consent form as strongly as we could to ensure that they understood this was for research purposes and if they haven't believed us, they probably would have opted out. What are we to make of the fact that the data represents the oh, who opted in only because I'm just running this through my head. If I were employ- and I am told that there's some kind of Experiment going on with smart people from Harvard Business School and, however much you, tell me your dough, I intuit samurai figure out somewhere. I guess some and into an open office and, I think do man. I hate the open office and therefore I definitely want to participate in this experiment so that I can sabotaged by behaving exactly the opposite of what I think they want me to behave.
That too skeptical or cynical boy. You sound like one of my reviewers in the peer review process, for it is a valid concern. Let me tell you what we tried to do to alleviate it. The first thing I should say is we ve compared that individuals who opted in two wearing the badge and those who did not to a series of demographics. We got from the H our systems and we don't see system. Differences there. You know it is always possible when you're doing social Science research, that someone makes a guess, but there is accurate or not about what this study is trying to two under Dan and then takes a purse. Stand and says you know, I'm gonna stand for what's right and what's right is cubicles in They would have to have done that for every day for two months, so it would have been a remarkable feat of endurance? We don't think that's what happened, but you know they open up.
Factions are real, so deftly importance. In addition to All these data from employees, badges the researchers can also measure each employees, electronic communications, their emails and instant messages. Again they were only measuring this communication, not examining the content, and so we were able to do is compare individuals face to face and electronic communication before and after the move from cubicles to open space. These two invite. Ok, so the Bernstein Turban study lifted too five hundred companies where employees had moved from cubicles to open offices and they measured ever but they could about how the employees communication changed face to face and electronic communication. What do you think happened after the break will see if you're right.
Also, will their findings really matter if the data say, the open office is a disaster that mean it's finally dead. The open office is not dead. And if you want to hear another episode, we ve made about noise and distraction check out time to take back the toilet from our archive. We'll be right back. For economics, radio sponsored by Petsmart Petsmart makes it safe and easy for you to care for your pet at Petsmart, the health and safety of employees, pet parents and pets are which most important, which is why they require face coverings. Social, distancing and stop plexiglas shields and enhanced cleaning to follow CDC recommendations for contact list thing just order online at Petsmart, not com or on the Petsmart app.
Joy, easy curbside, pick up for same day: delivery powered by door dash free through January thirty. First, two thousand twenty one check out petsmart dot com for more details today, we ve been hearing about the history of the open office and a new study by Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban about whether the open office, indeed produces more interaction and collaboration. Ok, so you ve done the study to firms over a period of I'm with a number of people to measure how their behaviour changes generally tell us what you found. So the city had two main conclusions
We found that when these individuals moved from closed cubicles into the open office, interaction decreased face to face communication decrease by about seventy percent in both of our two studies. Conversely, that communication was an entirely lost instead, the seconds, although we found was that communication. Actually, crease, virtually so people emailed more. I am nor how much of that decrease was compensated by electronic. So is an increase of twenty to fifty percent of electronic vacation? That means more emails, my ams and depend how you think about what an email is worth it. You could say that they made up for it. Is an email with five fighting. This conversation is two minutes. It's a little bit hard to say, because an Email and interaction may not be compared in item, even if we saw a in
these in the migration which totally made up for the faceless communication will, you probably saw, was a loss in riches, community The information is being conveyed. I was actually less. What can you tell us about how the open space affected productivity in satisfaction? I come out clean and say we don't have perfect data on performance, and we don't have any data on satisfaction, we purpose we stayed away from satisfaction. We just wanted to look at the interaction of individuals in one of our Tuesday. These, we have anecdotally some information Where are the organization felt that actually performance had declined? As a result of this move, I will say that boy, if we think about this, there are probably lots of context that we can think of where more face to face interaction would be useful and lots of context in which we
think more face to face interaction would not be useful and that's where I'd actually prefer to take the conversation productivity that, at the very least, to date, manager property manners of organizations have not thought about this. Being a trade off fave assumed cost and revenue go together. That may be true in some subset of environments, but in others, and that's not going to be true. What did the companies in your study do after you'd presented them with your findings? One of them has actually taken a step back from the open office, the other. Has attempted to make the open office work by adding more closed spaces. Two it ok so and impure A study of open offices finds that the primary benefit they are meant to confer more face to face
communication and the good things such communication and led to that it actually moves in the opposite direction. At least in the aggregate to be fair and open office is bound to be much better for certain tests. Than others and more important better for some people than others were not all the same, and some of us, I'm told not me, but some of us thrive in a potentially chatty or office, but on balance it would appear that being put out in the open leads. Most people to close themselves often been why You can probably answer that question for yourself, but Turban and Bernstein have some thoughts to here's. One may you dont want to disturb other people. So when you're in open office your voice carries, and people decide. Very reason. Blades say, while in I could speak with Tammy, whose
these three des away, but by talk to him, disrupt, Larry and and Catherine and so I will send her a quick message instead or maybe you compensate for the openness of the open office with behaviour that sends a do not disturb signal. If everyone can see you You want to signal to everyone that you are a hard worker, so you look intense yet your screen, maybe you put on headphones too, to block the noise guess what, when we signal that we also tend to signal- and please don't interrupt me from my work, which may very well been part of what happened. In our studies here and then there's what Ethan Bernstein calls the transparency paradox. So, very simply. The transparency paradox is the idea that increasingly transparent, open, observable workplaces can create less transparent place. For instance, let's say you ve been really
Transcript generated on 2021-01-20.