But when researchers turned their attention to the specific impact of open offices on interaction, the results were mixed. Perhaps troubled by this inconsistency, Bernstein and Turban decided to get to the bottom of this issue. Prior studies of open offices had relied on imprecise measures such as self-reported activity logs to quantify interactions before and after a shift to an open office plan. Bernstein and Turban tried something more accurate: they had subjects wear devices around their neck that directly measured every face-to-face encounter. They also used email and IM server logs to determine exactly how much the volume of electronic interactions changed.
Here’s a summary of what they found: Contrary to what’s predicted by the sociological literature, the 52 participants studied spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face after the shift to an open office layout. To make these numbers concrete: In the 15 days before the office redesign, participants accumulated an average of around 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the switch to the open layout, the same participants dropped to around 1.7 hours of face-to-face interaction per day. At the same time, the shift to an open office significantly increased digital communication. After the redesign, participants sent 56% more emails (and were cc’d 41% more times), and the number of IM messages sent increased by 67%.