25 mins

03 Ethan Bernstein

The organizational behavior expert on how to balance quality over quantity in face-to-face workplace interactions.

Organizational behavior expert, Ethan Bernstein, offers solutions to constructing a collaborative workplace culture.

Ethan Bernstein, associate professor in the organizational behavior unit at the Harvard Business School, talks to us about how he and his peers are assessing the open office phenomenon.

Through his research, Bernstein addresses a number of myths around employee interactions and architectural space, including the limits of self-management and organizational adaptability and the pros and cons of collaborative digital tools and privacy. Referencing the dream of an open, egalitarian workspace going back to the 1940s, he discusses the elements involved in establishing a true rhythm of collaboration and predicts three key themes for the future.

Read more about the Bernstein’s thoughts on workplace transparency and how companies are tracking their employee’s daily interactions here.

Transcript Below

SPENCER BAILEY: Ethan, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you here today.


Let’s start with the idea of transparency, which has been the focus of your work for years. You’ve long been looking at how, increasingly, transparent workspaces impact human behavior, and, in turn, productivity. In this sense, what we’re talking about is employee activities, routines, output. Why do you think transparency has become not just a “hot buzzword,” but a global concern, a public dialogue?

ETHAN BERNSTEIN: On the one hand, we just can see so much more than we could before. We spent centuries, as civilizations, not being able to see things we wished we could, so that we could analyze them, so that we could improve them, so that we could, literally, just simply understand what was going on better, and make good use of that information.


The technological revolution that has driven what we call “workplace transparency” today, is half of the answer to your question. The other half is that, while we’ve made activities, behaviors, routines of employees more transparent, we’ve also made the rest of the world more transparent. So, when something bad happens, or, for that matter, when something good happens, everybody finds out about it quickly—it comes out in a tweet. The more transparent we can be about outcomes, and the more transparent we can be about, as the first part was, behaviors, the more we begin to wonder if we couldn’t do something to link those two things together. So that, I think, has driven what would otherwise be a limited phenomenon, either with respect to what we can do technologically, or what we’re seeing in outcomes, and made us want to understand more about those intermediary steps that allow us to get from behavior to outcome.


SB: Of course, so much connects to technology in this context, specifically things like sensors that are allowing us to track a lot of how we work, where we work, even in certain cases, why we work. These are sensors in chairs, in floors, in RFID badges, in smartphones, in lighting systems. I’m curious, your work has so much to do with tracking data, and paying attention to what’s happening in the workspace. When do you think it’s okay to observe employees, and when not? How should companies be thinking about this, in terms of understanding how they’re shaping their workspaces?


EB: You’re asking the researcher who has only benefited from the access to all this data. You’re asking me to be impartial, when I’m necessarily partial.


It’s really interesting. I was just, a few weeks ago, sitting with Florijn Vriend, whose name I’m sure I just mispronounced. I was sitting with Florijn Vriend, who is at Edge Technologies, one of the leading developers of interesting, innovative office spaces in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. We were sitting in this fairly standard—pretty but standard—meeting room. She said, “You know, there are more than sixty sensors in this room.” I couldn’t have counted them, because I couldn’t necessarily have seen them, but that’s how many sensors there are, simply around us, at any point in time.


Of course, what makes them powerful is not necessarily the number, but we’ve had thermostats for a long time, we’ve had auto light switches for a long time, we’ve had smartphones, now, for a long time. What makes these things powerful, when you put all those sensors in a room, and they all become digitized into one central mind. Now, they become powerful, the way that a researcher can look at a set of data, and analyze it, and make it powerful. And, quite frankly, a little creepy.


So, the answer becomes, how do we think about ensuring that the sensors, and the data they produce, are capturing something that the people who are behaving within those spaces are comfortable having captured? Otherwise, I still believe you could put thousands of sensors in the workplace, millions of sensors in the workplace. Human ingenuity is still going to win out. If we know we’re being tracked, we’re going to behave differently, in a way that sidesteps whatever tracking behavior, or trackers, or sensors are being used. Until we’re comfortable being observed, the observation by tens, hundreds, or thousands of sensors isn’t going to make a difference. 


SB: Right. At their best, what can these sensors teach us about the future of work?


EB: At their best, they make us all better. We are, as human beings, beautiful, wonderful, creative, innovative creatures. But self-awareness is not always our strength. Sensors that allow us a higher level of awareness about what we’re doing and not doing well give us a chance to improve. That’s not just individually. With this many sensors, in collective spaces, that’s collectively.


When we talk about collective intelligence, we might actually be able to become more collectively intelligent human beings—groups, teams, divisions of human beings, organizations of human beings—if we could use that data to our benefit.


SB: I want to switch to open offices. This is now the focus of your most recent work.


EB: Absolutely.


SB: There’s a paper you wrote in the Harvard Business Review called “The Truth About Open Offices,” that just came out in the November/December issue. Obviously, these open, flexible, activity-based spaces have come to displace cubicles, increasingly. This is making people more visible, more accessible, more connected. Basically, ever-present, always on. How do we contend with this?


EB: Not too well, sometimes. 


SB: [Laughs]


EB: I guess it depends on which of us you’re talking about.


I’ll first say, in some respects, if you had asked me five years ago if my work would ever include work on open offices, I would have said, “Why? What’s the connection?” I was looking at transparency, as you just pointed out, in very different ways.


SB: Mm-hmm.


EB: Each time I published an article, somebody would ask me, so, does this mean that open offices are blank—fill in the blank—good or bad? The answer was always, “Well, it says nothing about open offices, because that’s not what I was studying. That’s trying to generalize what I’ve studied into a context that I haven’t.”


I guess I got tired enough of that question, over and over again, that I thought, Well, it’s about time to just go and do this, as best as I possibly can. So, we did. We can talk a little bit about the results in a moment, but there certainly are parallels to the idea that, yes, we can look at this problem from an up-above, looking-at-everyone-else lens of, wouldn’t it be nice to know what everyone is doing? So we could, let’s assume the best of intentions, make everyone better. If we could do that with the technology we have, fabulous. Maybe, then, in an open office space, if we can open up the space, and make everyone capable of seeing everyone else, they’ll collaborate more, they’ll collide more. There will be natural vibrancy to the environment that we don’t have now, because we have these things in the way called walls or cubicles, or whatever else it might be.


So, the promise was there, but, just like in an environment in which you don’t want to be monitored, you find a way to not be monitored. In open offices, there are at least a few listeners out there who don’t really like working in that kind of openness. So, they very quickly found office hacks to avoid having it feel open.


SB: Yeah. They probably have headphones on, listening to this podcast right now.


EB: Headphones listening to podcasts. I’ve seen hacks, I’ve seen curtains, I’ve seen… There’s even, out of Japan, there’s this new device that you can put on that both blocks the sound to your ears, so it’s a headphone, but it comes around almost like horse blinders, so it blocks anything other than what’s in your focal vision, as well. You’ve got lights on the desk that show red or green, red if I’m busy and green if I’m available. People have put strategically placed pictures in ways that allow them to hide behind them. I’ve seen all kinds of office hacks out there.


SB: This poses an interesting leadership conundrum. How does the C-suite figure out how to facilitate collaboration in this kind of environment? In design, new forms of organizing, amidst the noise and distraction, that happens in the open office?


EB: If I had an answer to that question that was perfect, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. So, it’s going to be an experimental process for us, figuring that out.


It’s actually a far more profound question, I think, than it seems like on the face of it. You mentioned “always open.” We’re always open, not just because of the spaces we work in, but because of the omni-channel collaboration that we now have. So, if I’m not in an open office, but I have Slack, and I have email, and I have IM, and I have a phone, and, and, and, and. There’s so many ways in which people can collaborate with me that it’s not just about the space I work in. So the leadership question, as we framed it up, actually, in our Sloan Management Review article just a couple months ago is, how do I create a rhythm of collaboration? Which includes silence—rhythm has to have both sound and silence—that’s effective for my organization. It’s not too much, because then it’s just always on, and it’s not too little, because then we don’t get the benefit of people actually collaborating with one another. That’s a bigger issue than just what kind of offices you put people in.


SB: This idea of rhythm, I think it’s really important. People don’t really think about it, the rhythm of their day. Being on, engaged, and then off, or silent. Where do you see rhythm being able to be integrated somehow into the open office?


EB: So, to some extent, I think people already do. We’ve started with leadership, but let’s give all the employees out there listening to this a little bit of credit. All the office hacks we just talked about, that’s about people, together, almost like a jazz ensemble, finding rhythm. The challenge is, of course, that it’s individual rather than collective, in that form that we discussed.


But in the article, we talk about Diderot’s “fourth wall,” the idea that, as an actor on stage, you pretend as if there’s a fourth wall, [that] the curtain never opened. So that you maintain the intimacy with your fellow actors and actresses on stage, and you forget that the audience is there in such a way that you can have that intimacy without being impacted by so many people looking on. That’s what these people are doing in open spaces. To some extent that’s creating a rhythm that’s probably more productive than “always on.” 


SB: So how do you view this, in terms of digital life, let’s call it, and face-to-face life? The human interaction. We have this moment, you’ve called it a “renaissance of workplace collaboration tools”—things like Slack. Amidst that, how do we create meaningful interaction? How do we balance the communication that’s happening through these digital tools with the face-to-face?


EB: In the original work that we did on open offices, we found [that], as offices moved from more cubicled spaces to more open spaces, face-to-face interaction dropped across two different contexts. Both Fortune 500 companies, both we thought very representative, face-to-face interaction dropped about seventy percent, and was substituted with electronic communication.


People have seen that as really bad, or really good. We can talk about that in a moment. I have less of a view of whether that’s bad or good. It was certainly an unintended consequence. We don’t really love unintended consequences when it comes to workspaces. So, that seems like it’s an unfortunate outcome.


But, we also saw that the network that people were accessing electronically was different than the network people were accessing face-to-face—less than a fifty percent overlap. So, that not only means that, by moving people into open spaces, companies changed how people communicated, it changed with whom they were collaborating. If they did that unintentionally, now I get a little bit scared.


But, still, my favorite example. Maybe that’s great. I don’t necessarily want my employees to turn to the person next to them and ask a question, when the person across the world has all the expertise on that topic. If I’ve just made it harder for people to communicate face to face, and therefore caused people to communicate virtually, with the person who actually knows the right answer, fabulous. It doesn’t get me those collisions that we think we need in order for innovation, and we might have to find other ways of achieving that. Enter different kinds of workspaces, different kinds of designs, different kinds of communication rhythms. But, it might not be, on its face, a bad thing.


SB: This notion of a collision, or the idea that unplanned encounters can lead to good things—exchanges of ideas, unforeseen collaboration, et cetera—that was the idea of the open office, originally, I think, which hasn’t really proven to be true. Do you imagine we’ll see something more like a hybrid office as opposed to an “open office?” I know you’ve written that accidental collisions facilitated by open offices and free spaces can be counterproductive.


EB: First of all, let’s just say, I still find it odd that “collisions,” a word we typically did not use with favorable context, has become this thing that we really, really want. Not outside of the office, because typically if you have a collision outside of the office, it means you just had a car accident.


SB: Yeah.


EB: In the office, now it has this positive context.


Of course, for every one of those collisions, you have twenty, or thirty, or two hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand conversations that really don’t have any value. Or, maybe, are not even meaningful. So, there’s a question here, I think, about how do we create valuable collisions, not just how do we create collisions?


If you go back in history and look at the development of the open office, today we say, “Gee, it looks like the purpose of the open office was collisions.” I’m actually not sure history would prove us right about that. The open office, more than anything else, was about cost, and about managerial convenience. It’s only recently that we’ve changed to a narrative about collisions. So, in some respects, we’re repurposing the open office, not necessarily incorrectly, but we’re repurposing it for collisions when it was originally designed for those two things.


SB: While we’re on this point, I think it would be interesting to dig a little bit into the origins of the open office. I’ve heard you mention that it can go, arguably, all the way back to the Romans. Of course, it goes to early factories. Frank Lloyd Wright and his work with the S.C. Johnson headquarters in the thirties. Of course, there were the secretarial pools that came around at that same time, in the forties and fifties. How do you view, as a researcher of this, the development of the open office, the evolution of the open office?


EB: When I look at it from my perspective, is a cyclicality. Like many fads, I suppose, although I’m not sure if this is a fad or not, it has ebbed and flowed over time. Each time, it feels a little bit like a pendulum—a rather expensive pendulum, because we’re talking about physical assets, so things that stick around for long periods of time, and take a lot of money to create. It has been back and forth, back and forth. Each time, you like to see those pendulum swings get narrower and narrower. I actually think that maybe we’re getting wider and wider, as we get more variety of potential workspaces in which to work.


So this gets to your question about, so then, what about hybrid, what about flexible, what about agile workspaces? Maybe that’s the answer. If we’re going to swing that pendulum more extreme over time, maybe we should just have a bunch of different workspaces that sit at the extremes, and you get to choose the one that’s best for you.


The problem is that, if I choose the one that’s best for me, and you choose the one that’s best for you, and all the other people listening to this choose the one that’s best for them, they’ll be surrounded by people who choose the same kind of workspace as them. Now, we’ve got homophyly working, in such a way that it’s unlikely that these collisions that happen are going to happen between diverse individuals, at least on that dimension. And, perhaps, on many others.


I’m not sure that’s the solution, as much as people would like to believe it is. I know that our designers who are listening would like that to be the answer, because it’s the simple answer, for them. They know how to create this, and they know how to create that. You put this and that in the same space, and people get to self-select in, and everyone seems to be happy. But in doing so, perhaps all we’ve done is preserved the cost advantage of open spaces, without actually addressing this collision-slash-collaboration question you’re asking.


SB: Where do you see office life in, say, 2050? I mean, we’re headed to a place where there’s going to be intelligent glass windows that can adapt and turn into screens, where virtual meetings will become much easier, with software that will include real-time translation. Already, office furniture is changing. There’s this whole idea of breakout areas, and privacy has become this elusive thing. Facial recognition software is completely changing how large corporations are operating. How do you see all of that in the future? How do you think about the workspace of 2050?


EB: I became an academic so I could predict the past rather than the future. It’s much easier that way. It’s a difficult question. If anyone had the perfect answer, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Here are a few themes.


The first theme: There is more competition in design of workspaces today than there ever has been before. Because, now that I have the technological capability, and perhaps the permission to work from home, to work from Starbucks, to work from WeWork, or a studio, or one of these many less-fixed office spaces… Or, for that matter, to work from the 22nd floor, the 21st floor, the 20th floor, which all have different designs, perhaps to them, in my company. Now that I have choice; each design has competition with the other designs I might choose. That’s good, in my view. It’s making real estate manager’s jobs a living hell, but it’s good.


If it can bring together real estate managers, and landlords, and HR people, and finance people, and we can all start to have one conversation about how to create the portfolio of spaces—the map, if you will, of spaces that all improve through that competition—I think we’ll get somewhere by 2050. We might actually break some of these trade-offs by 2050. It maybe sounds like a low bar to you, but we’ve lived with a lot of these trade-offs for a century. It would be nice to think that, in the next thirty years, we might break some of those trade-offs. So, that’s one.


Two, because of both different expectations of the upcoming millennial and Gen Z generations, and also because of improvements in technology, there’s going to be a lot more DIY. There already is. What I love about technologies—and I call them technologies—like ROOM, these pods you can go into, or moveable desks, or moveable anything… The fact that everything is, to some extent, a little bit more flexible, at least in some people’s contexts, means that you can build it yourself, you can do it yourself, you can create it yourself.


That doesn’t mean I can decorate the top of my desk. It actually means, I can set this workspace so that it is mine, and perhaps only temporarily mine. By the time I’ve adjusted the height of the desk, the kind of chair I’m sitting in, or not sitting in if I’m standing, the view I might have, the fill in the blank… Whether I have walls in a phone booth for forty-five minutes, so I can have a virtual conversation with FaceTime, or then I have a first-class airline business seat–like endeavor, where I can get some focused work done. Then, walk into a meeting room and actually meet with people. This idea that I can construct, not just my time experience over the course of the day, but I can actually construct my space, we can construct our space. Things are flexible enough, and inexpensive enough to not have ten-year amortization schedules, but one-year schedules.


That’s kind of how we think about our workspaces when they’re just ours. I think that’s how the next set of generations are going to think about office workspaces, and they already are. That’s the second key change. 


I, third, cannot predict what technology is going to do. If you look back, very few people have ever correctly predicted how technology would change an entire workforce, like HVAC systems, and lighting systems that gave us skyscrapers. Like, in the recent phase, Slack, Teams, Zoom, whatever else, and how it’s made virtual work almost as good as, at least we think that way, face-to-face work.


The next step? I think there will be a next step, but I’m not even going to predict what it might be. I’ll leave that to the architects, designers, and all the other folks out there who spent a lot more time thinking about it than I do.


SB: This is great. Thanks, Ethan. It was great to have you here today.


EB: Oh, this was fun! Thank you for doing it.