Monday, July 9, 2018

Open Borders, Open Offices

Here’s some fun information for the world of organizational psychology. However bad the therapy culture is, organizational and social psychology is alive and well and contributing to our understand of human behavior.

Cue the national debate about borders and boundaries. Some people prefer open borders. Others do not. After all, Europe tried open borders and is now having to correct its egregious error. We know that “good fences make good neighbors.” Robert Frost wrote the line and we keep coming back to it. For good reason.

It may be purely incidental, but corporations have long experimented with open offices, with offices that resemble a gigantic warehouse with rows of desks and workspaces. No walls. No doors. No privacy. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing at all times.

You might think that it’s all about freedom and openness. It seems really to be more about a surveillance state. Everyone knows everyone’s business. You cannot even nod off at your desk for a quick nap. And you certainly cannot speak freely to a friend or family member. It's not just Big Brother who's watching. Everyone is watching.

Anyway, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban studied it all and reported their results for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society… thus for a serious peer-reviewed journal. They concluded that open offices undermined open communications and human interaction. The more open the office the more texting and email, the less face-to-face interaction. Whoever would have imagined such a thing?

They summarize the results of their research:

Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes. In two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, we empirically examined—using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers—the effect of open office architectures on employees' face-to-face, email and instant messaging (IM) interaction patterns. Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) 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 email and IM. 

They do not draw a conclusion, so we are free to conclude that the surveillance state does not facilitate open communication. It induces people to retreat and withdraw.


Dan Patterson said...

Very interesting. People tend to interact with people they want to interact with, and will resist being forced into collaboration. People seek privacy and safety and avoid risk. Open areas are dangerous, remember Cary Grant in "North by Northwest" and the Stearman buzzing him? Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, to quote Martha and the Vandellas.
The Lizard Brain and Cave Man instincts are alive and well it seems.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

They also do open concept in some elementary schools. I don't know that it has been damaging - kids sitting still at desks for long periods is tough, too. I do know that when it came in it was on the basis of no research, just the thought "this will obviously be a good idea."

Ares Olympus said...

Last fall Vox had an article/video on the negatives of open offices...

It makes me wonder about the new fad of "standing desks", how that interacts in open spaces, or short wall cubical spaces, since it means you're looking down on everyone else around you.

whitney said...

Soviet era apartment blocks had one kitchen per floor so everyone had to share a kitchen. That's one way of keeping the proletariat from fomenting Revolution