Several years ago, IBM undertook a significant change that had nothing to do with technology.
Instead, the company decided to end its telecommute policy. And IBM wasn’t alone. Bank of America, Aetna, even Yahoo all cut back on telecommute offerings.
Apparently, this has become a trend. According to 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey, the number of American workers who worked partially or full-time from home dropped to 22 percent in 2016 — down two percent from 2015.
Why this drop, especially when many managers admit that telecommuting allows workers to increase their productivity?
The answer seems to be the pursuit of collaboration among all employees. This effort has not only led to less telecommuting, but also to the creation of “open offices” – a workplace free of individual space, like private offices or individual cubicles. Instead, employees work at large tables in open rooms.
Such designs usually include “collaboration spaces” with groups of comfy chairs, and maybe a few conference rooms for necessary meetings and occasional private discussions. Simply put, open offices resemble your neighborhood Starbucks or Panera.
The idea behind the design is that if you take down the walls and barriers, people will collaborate more often and more effectively. Employees will get off their devices, talk in person, share more information and, hopefully, spontaneously brainstorm new ideas.
Many companies have spent millions re-configuring their office buildings.
But has it worked?
A recent study suggests that no, it doesn’t. People are putting on headphones because of the noise level and working more from home when they can. This has led to employees sending more emails.
Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein and his colleague recently studied two Fortune 500 companies that made the shift to an open-office environment. Using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones and evaluating email and instant messenger (IM) data, the researchers found in the first study that open offices led to a 73-percent decrease in face-to-face interactions. Not surprisingly, email and IM use increased – by 67 percent and 75 percent, respectively.
In a second study, the researchers looked at how interactions between specific pairs of colleagues changed. They found similar results. Face-to-face communication dropped at a similar level and emailing increased by 22 to 50 percent.
According to Bernstein:
There’s a “natural human desire for privacy, and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it. What the changes were doing was creating not a more face-to-face environment, but a more digital environment.”
Not only was it a “digital environment,” it became one in which different groups of people interacted online rather than in person. Email might be an easier way to connect but it could have an impact on productivity if employees aren’t getting face time with their team members.
So, if open offices don’t increase collaboration, what is the answer?
According to Harvard’s Ram Nidumolu, Jib Ellison, John Whalen, and Erin Billman (Harvard Business Review, April 2014), “tapping into the full, long-term value of collaboration requires new models that consider the ecosystem as a whole.”
Specifically, these researchers found four collaboration models that had two defining characteristics – they engage the right people and put a focus on collaboration in operating processes and business outcomes.
There is no doubt that collaboration among coworkers is essential in today’s ever-changing and more complex business environment. However, office doors and walls weren’t the problem, and it appears the answer lies in including key stakeholders in collaborative efforts and discussions and creating plans for achieving tangible outcomes.
So, next time your organization is looking to increase their collaboration/ teamwork, you don’t need to call the architects!
Joseph Gier, Ph.D. is Vice President – Consulting Services at EASI•Consult® and is a licensed Psychologist. EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult is the exclusive partner of Columbia University’s Dr. Warner Burke and the Burke Learning Agility Inventory™, which has been integrated into various solutions including identification of future leaders, leadership and individual assessment, leadership development, executive coaching, professional-level individual contributor assessment, and 360-degree feedback. EASI•Consult also offers online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.