When obvious things aren't true

When obvious things aren't true

I’ve been reading ‘The Office: A Hardworking History’ by Gideon Haigh. It chronicles the development of the office from its origins with the earliest companies, like the East India Trading Co., to the modern era. 

A neat idea in the narrative is the powerful influence of a few seemingly self-evident ideas. Specifically, the seemingly obvious benefit of an open plan office space. Various forms of open plan office have been constantly developed and redeveloped for fifty years or more. Open plan offices are supposed to be democratic, collaborative and communicative. At least, that is what their advocates argue. Yet, what is the evidence that this apparently self-obvious solution is actually a good way for people to work? 

A quick tour through the crucial period of office development provides context to the forces involved. From the 1900s; advanced use of concrete, steel reinforcing, cost-effective lighting and elevators provided the appropriate medium for new visions of architectural modernism. A relocation of core services to the centre or side of the new tall buildings, left wide and well-lit spacious floors free of any vertical columns or separators. 

An amusing side note; the Germans actually had a whole series of words for these towering buildings; including Hochhausfieber (’skyscraper fever’), Turmhaeuser ’(tower buildings) and Wolkenkraetzer (quite literally ‘cloud scratchers’). These phrases have no bearing, but they are delightful all the same. 

During this period, within these shining new grandiose towers, businesses were experimenting with various forms of open plan workspace. The old world of private offices was being swept away in a tide of new information workers, middle managers and clerks. This created a strong pressure to fit more people into less space. 

The Johnson Wax Headquarters (1936) by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. An interesting fusion of open plan and cubicle.

The Johnson Wax Headquarters (1936) by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. An interesting fusion of open plan and cubicle.

In parallel, a movement from Germany known as Bürolandschaft (‘office landscapes’) made its way across the ocean. The office landscaping movement believed in an open-plan, but organic arrangement of desks, plants and furniture. It was an attempt to bring new democratic ideals into physical form. Unfortunately, the office landscaping movement sunk beneath the onrush of the ‘action desk’ cubicle partitions that filled offices from 1960 even through to today.

So we arrive in the modern office era. Remember office landscaping? We can see the return of the movement in a revised format. Call it office landscaping 2.0. Collections of desks, occasional plants and ‘collaboration’ zones. Again, quite a number of people in a tightly packed open space. 

All the innovation and design in modern office landscaping is generally branded with the belief that ‘communication is obviously easier between work stations…there is no time wasted between offices because everyone is in the same area.’

Here we return to our original question. Does an open plan office space encourage collaboration as intended? 

What I do know is that recent work by two Harvard researchers, Ethan S. Bernstein Stephen Turban, suggest quite the opposite. In a piece of fascinating empirical research, using two workplaces transitioning to an open plan work environment, they explored this exact question. How does an open plan workspace affect collaboration? The use of real workplaces is crucial as it creates a natural experiment, not reliant on people’s opinions or self reports.

Using tracking devices and monitoring people over the course of the transition, they found something startling. The volume of face-to-face interaction when the workplaces shifted to an open plan work environment decreased significantly (approximately 70%). 

Oh dear. That casts some doubt on the power of open plan work to encourage collaboration. 

Yet this piece of research isn’t a puzzle when placed in context with what we already know about human behaviour. As humans, we constantly struggle with balance between sociability and privacy. The stakes at play are anxiety and attention. 

An open plan office seems to put us squarely into a distracting and stressful state of social overstimulation. In this setting, the research indicated that people find ways to isolate themselves. This includes using electronic means of communication more and collaborating less. 

So next time you make a decision that an approach you are about to take is ‘obviously’ better then another, it might be a good idea to write a quick list of what empirical evidence you have. Consider evidence both for or against the belief. If you don’t have any, that’s okay. Your next step should probably be to work out how to find some. 

You should probably rethink your open plan office as well. 



Haigh, Gideon; (2012), The Office Book: A Hardworking History



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How design changes behaviour

Always challenge assumptions

Always challenge assumptions