The culprit is Frank Lloyd Wright.
At least if you are one of those people who hate open-plan offices and have a bone to pick with the man who, allegedly, introduced the first open office landscape. This was in 1904 in the Larkin Administration Building in New York. Owner and architect Frank Lloyd Wright removed the walls and replaced individual offices with one single room to accommodate the entire workforce, allowing staff to collaborate and communicate openly. The idea was to promote a more equal environment and give employees the feeling of a place where the family would gather, as he said. The concept really took off in the United States during the 1960s, inspired by the German ‘Bürolandschaft’, where employees were placed in small groups in an open office landscape in order to ensure an efficient workflow. Developments in Denmark have followed the US, and during the last decade, open-plan offices have become virtually standard. The aim is to support modern workflows where knowledge sharing and feedback are key*.
"The higher the number of people sitting together in one office, the harder it gets for them to collaborate with their colleagues, feel comfortable and be happy at work"
Tobias Otterbring - assistant professor, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS
But do open-plan offices actually promote knowledge sharing and feedback, and has the original goal of smooth, equal collaboration been realised?
Well, not really, if you ask Tobias Otterbring, associate professor at Aarhus BSS, and main author of the research article “The relationship between office type and job satisfaction: Testing a multiple mediation model through ease of interaction and well-being.” His research shows that the higher the number of people sitting together in one office, the harder it gets for them to collaborate with their colleagues, feel comfortable and be happy at work.
Tobias Otterbring and his colleagues have come to this conclusion by testing, for the first time, the correlation between several different variables related to open-plan offices in a single coherent model - as opposed to previous studies, which typically have described negative correlations between open-plan offices and single variables, such as productivity, job satisfaction or staff turnover. More specifically, in this study the researchers test whether the link between the number of people sharing an office and job satisfaction can be explained by the ease with which people collaborate with their colleagues and by people’s subjective well-being, i.e. how comfortable they feel.
"We investigated whether the two variables of collaboration and well-being can explain the correlation between how many people share an office and how satisfied they are at work. Our conclusion is that for all these variables, there is a negative correlation between the number of people sharing an office and the ease with which people collaborate with colleagues, the degree of subjective well-being and the degree of job satisfaction," concludes Tobias Otterbring.
Thus, the model tests the correlation between variables, but not the cause and effect. Consequently, this study does not allow the researchers to conclude that open-plan offices result in poor well-being, but it can show the correlation between the number of people sitting in one office, and how happy they are at work.
"And here, we can see that open-plan offices correlate negatively with collaboration and the experience of well-being and job satisfaction," says Tobias Otterbring.
It may seem strange that sharing knowledge and collaborating should be more difficult when many people sit together in the same room compared with sitting alone in an office. But according to Tobias Otterbring, the reason could be that there is more noise and more interruptions in an open-plan office, where people are constantly having conversations everywhere in the room. The open office landscape also makes it difficult to have confidential conversations, so all in all there is a higher level of distraction that does not facilitate communication and collaboration, even though people are sitting right next to each other.
And business leaders should be aware of this, according to Tobias Otterbring.
"The study could be a wake-up call for people who make decisions on the design of a company’s premises and who are considering open-plan offices. They shouldn’t just jump on any trend, without paying attention to the research carried out in the area," he says, and continues:
"In the short term, it might well be cheaper to gather many employees in less space. It might also be aesthetically more attractive, but you can't just go from costs and aesthetics to efficiency and well-being in the long term. Living human beings have to feel comfortable, and if they don’t, the negative consequences for the workplace will be greater in the long term,” says Tobias Otterbring, noting that if you become too obsessed with the short-term financial benefits of open-plan offices, you may overlook the fact that they can create more dissatisfaction, stress and inefficiency.
All Wright, you're tempted to say. It may well be that the intention behind the original idea of the open-plan office was just fine. But business leaders should not simply believe that reality automatically matches the intention. And in any case, they should be familiar with the long-term, negative consequences.
*Sources: Pejtersen J.H. Indeklima og psykosocialt arbejdsmiljø i storrumskontorer. I: Miljø og sundhed 2006;12(Suppl 6):43-48 og Musser George. The Origin of Cubicles and the Open-Plan Office. I: Scientific American 2009: August 17.
Otterbring, Tobias; Pareigis, Jörg; Wästlund, Erik; Makrygiannis, Alexander; Lindström, Anton. The relationship between office type and job satisfaction: Testing a multiple mediation model through ease of interaction and well-being. I: Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, Bind 44, Nr. 3, 2018, s. 330-334.
What the researchers did
The research project tested a model that included several different factors instead of looking at just single correlations.
The model examines a sequence: whether a relationship (in this case between office size and job satisfaction) can be explained by (two) other variables: 1) whether people can interact and collaborate with their colleagues; and 2) the degree of subjective well-being experienced.
In the study, the respondents were asked whether they shared an office with others, and if so, how many. Subsequently, the researchers grouped the responses into four categories: Own office; 1-2 colleagues; 3-9 colleagues; and 10-20 colleagues. Based on the four categories, the researchers then examined whether there was a relationship between the categories, see above.