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For many years, the trend has been to pack people together in open-concept offices, ensuring greater interaction and saving real estate costs. We now know it can hamper concentration, but the greater number of interactions is assumed to overcome that deficiency, sparking more creative ideas as people work together and ultimately enhancing productivity.

Now comes a study that suggests we’re dead wrong. Social interaction in the form of face-to-face discussions oddly goes down after such a switch in office design.

If you’re in a position to decide such office arrangements, you may need to think twice. If you’re trapped in one, you also need to think twice: It’s not just your focus and concentration that is suffering but also your face-to-face interaction; you may need to change how you deal with colleagues.

The study by Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and Stephen Turban, an analytics fellow at McKinsey & Co., didn’t rely on surveys, as is common, but instead tracked wearable devices workers used and their electronic communications on corporate servers at two companies before and after a transition to open plan. They gave a few months for people to become used to the new situation and tracked similar periods in the corporate work cycle.

The volume of face-to-face interaction decreased about 70 per cent in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. “In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over e-mail and IM,” they write in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. In many cases, people put on their headphones to cut noise and beavered away on their computers.

To put the impact more concretely, in the 15 days before the office redesign at one of the companies, participants accumulated an average of around 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the switch, that dropped to around 1.7 hours of face-to-face interaction per day. Even though everyone on the floor could see everyone else all the time − or perhaps because they could, the researchers speculate – virtual interaction replaced face-to-face. Participants sent 56 per cent more e-mails and were cc’d 41 per cent more often, and the number of IM messages sent increased by 67 per cent.

It’s possible, of course, that people were wasting time before the switch in less-than-productive conversations, lingering longer in colleagues’ offices or holding vapid meetings. But an internal management review found that productivity, as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the shift to open office.

“Like social insects which swarm within functionally-determined zones ‘partitioned’ by spatial boundaries (e.g. hives, nests or schools), human beings – despite their greater cognitive abilities – may also require boundaries to constrain their interactions, thereby reducing the potential for overload, distraction, bias, myopia and other symptoms of bounded rationality,” the investigators provocatively speculate.

In an interview on the Harvard Business School web site, Mr. Bernstein says this throws a bucket of ice water on the idea that you will both save on real estate costs and get more collaboration from open-plan design. He adds that if the cost motive were sufficiently strong, there might be other things a manager could do to mitigate the potential negative impact on interactions: hybrid or flexible spaces, training people differently, allowing work-from-home time, or setting a tone and work culture with the aim of deprogramming people from our natural instincts to respond the way these organizations did.

If the company just obliviously tosses you into open office – or you are already there – you may want to consider deprogramming yourself and evaluating whether your face-to-face collaboration should be greater.

Cal Newport, an associate professor at George Washington University who advocates for more intense, deep work, says on his blog that this underscores what he increasingly believes: “When it comes to the main challenge of knowledge work, which is figuring out how to get the most value out of human brains working together to process information, we still have no idea what we’re doing.”

Lists to help you through your day

Consultant and speaker Amber Rae suggests setting your priorities for the week on Sunday and then breaking that down into four categories you might find helpful:

  • Work: For each day, outline the top three things every day that you need to accomplish. “Sometimes I’ll map out the entire week on Sunday because my priorities are super clear. Other times, I’ll decide on my Top 3 on a day-by-day basis,” Ms. Rae writes on Fast Company.
  • Play: Make time to get into nature, read, create art (if, like her, you have that inclination) or simply skip down the sidewalk. That will stimulate curiosity and flow. Work stimulates play, allowing her to self-express, reflect and give herself space. Play stimulates work.
  • Fit: Movement keeps ideas moving forward. She aims for at least 30 minutes a day of movement.
  • Push: Every day, find something to do that scares you. For Ms. Rae, it’s reaching out for an interview to somebody she deeply respects or writing about a topic that makes her feel vulnerable.

Here are two more lists you might want to consider in your life, from productivity coach Jason Womack:

  • One list of projects you’re overseeing. For many people, this list will be 25 to 100 items long. He says there’s no “right number” of projects to have going on; the most important thing is that you know what they are.
  • One list of ideas you’re still thinking about (but haven’t committed to doing or decided not to do … yet). This includes the back-burner projects or “might-get-to” ideas that you are not working on in the next 12 months. Again, there isn’t a right number here.

You need to be on the exact same page as your colleagues about what you are and are not working on. And there should be clarity about which priorities are the highest and which tasks can wait.

Seven important questions to ask people you admire

Career coaches often encourage people to reach out to others they admire in order to gain insights on how to be successful. On her blog, consultant Lolly Daskal offers seven important questions to ask people you admire:

  • What’s the biggest factor that helped you be successful?
  • What are your success habits?
  • What mistakes have you made along the way?
  • What was the hardest decision you ever had to make?
  • What is the best advice you can give?
  • If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
  • What’s one change I should make right now to help me get closer to my success?

Quick hits

  • Opportunity never knocks. It hangs thick in the air around you. You breathe it in unthinkingly but also dissipate it with sighs, says consultant Roy H. Williams.
  • Avoid putting too much data on your presentation slides, exposing too much of the Excel spreadsheet used to come up with your findings, advises Power Point specialist Dave Paradi. Pare it down for clarity and then make it available afterward with a link to the data.
  • What age is too old to make a career change? A recent survey suggests 61. But you can start a business up to age 70, respondents suggest.
  • If you run a shop and the sign says you will be open at 8:30 a.m., consultant Nicholas Bate says to make sure you are fully up and running at that time, with the till ready, warm-up coffee drunk, and doors unlocked at 8:25 – not 8:32.
  • A good salesperson is selling themselves and the value of having a meeting when they ask for a meeting, not the product, says consultant Anthony Iannarino.

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