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The Truth About Open Offices - Harvard Business Review

MKT Statement:

Just because it was written before the pandemic, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant for planning the post-pandemic hybrid workplace. What is still true? We need to measure what we’re trying to achieve and adjust our practices in real time using real-time data.


  • “A single best physical or digital workspace architecture will never be found. That’s because more interaction is not necessarily better, nor is less. The goal should be to get the right people interacting with the right richness at the right times.”

  • “Many common assumptions about office architecture and collaboration are outdated or wrong. Although the open-office design is intended to encourage us to interact face-to-face, it gives us permission not to. The “accidental collisions” facilitated by open offices and free spaces can be counterproductive. In many instances, “copresence” via an open office or a digital channel does not result in productive collaboration.”

  • “Technological advances allow us to test assumptions and understand how groups of workers really interact. The hard data required to prove or disprove theories can be obtained and analyzed. For that to occur on a large scale, the HR, real estate, and finance functions need to embrace the experimentation that has infused marketing and operations. When that happens, physical and virtual workplace design can become a continuous process—one that gives the architecture and the anatomy of collaboration a happy place to meet.”

We found that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate.

Using advanced wearables and capturing data on all electronic interactions, we—along with Stephen Turban, one of Ethan’s former students, who is currently at Fulbright University Vietnam—tracked face-to-face and digital interactions at the headquarters of two Fortune 500 firms before and after the companies transitioned from cubicles to open offices. We chose the most representative workplaces we could find; we waited until people had settled in to their new spaces to track their postmove interactions; and, for accuracy, we varied the length of time over which we tracked them. With the first company, we collected data for three weeks before the redesign, starting one month prior, and for three weeks roughly two months after it. With the second, we collected data for eight weeks before the redesign, starting three months prior, and for eight weeks roughly two months after it. We aligned our data-collection periods with seasonal business cycles for apples-to-apples comparisons—for example, we collected data during the same weeks of the quarter. We found that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate.

People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues come to respect it. If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her. If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots him a look of annoyance, he won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly

Sometimes the best answer doesn’t involve changes to the physical structure. Experiments showed Mori that events deliberately designed to achieve particular interactions between specific individuals and teams had a more precise and valuable impact on interaction patterns than did changes to the office space. Those events can be internal workshops, hackathons, or even barbecues, as long as interactions are measured, using sensors, to show whether the desired patterns emerged. To help integrate new hires during their first week on the job, a midsize technology company puts jars of cookies on their desks and posts a map in the lobby showing the jars’ locations, to encourage people to stop by. Humanyze discovered that the location of its coffee machines significantly influences interactions. If a team needs to focus internally, the company puts a coffee machine in the center of its area. If two teams need to collaborate, it puts the machine between them.


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