Open plan offices revisited: what is the effect on communication?

Anthony Haynes

Now a new piece of research, incorporating two field studies, has focused specifically on the types of communications associated with open plan offices.

The research, by Ethan S. Bernstein & Stephen Turban, examined what happens when an organisation transitions from cubicle-based space to open plan.

The results are arresting: in the words of Bernstein & Turban, “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.”

These results do need to be treated with caution: they are based on only two studies and the variables were not fully controlled.

But they do matter: the claim that open plan promotes interpersonal communications is one of the key arguments used in favour of (often unpopular) open plan formats. If such results are replicated, the case for open plan will be seriously open to challenge.


Source: ‘The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration‘ in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (

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