Last year a Harvard Business School associate professor (Ethan Bernstein) led the first empirical study measuring both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after two Fortune 500 companies moved to an open barrier-free workspace. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study found that, with the open workspace, personal interactions dropped approximately 70% while electronic interactions increased between 22% and 50%. After this study was released (which some industry professionals have challenged), countless articles have been written that the open office plan is another misguided corporate management fad and the real reason for its adoption is to reduce costs by densely packing workers into a smaller space. While there’s certainly a cost benefit to a more open plan with a smaller footprint, particularly as rents in many markets are hitting historic heights, in this post I briefly discuss how a thoughtfully-crafted open office plan can increase personal interaction and productivity while contributing to the retention and recruitment of talent.
In the late 1960’s, Herman Miller, an American manufacturer of office furniture and equipment, spawned the idea of office cubicles. The cubicle’s popularity was sustained until about 10 years ago, when companies began to notice that the way in which people worked was changing; people were collaborating in small teams as well as relying on portable electronic devices that do not require that they be “tethered” to a fixed workspace.