You might have read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called The Transparency Trap by Ethan Bernstein about the fallacy of open work and workplaces – how they are designed to encourage innovation and creativity – but often have the reverse effect.  Despite how much leaders (and their architects) love the idea of connecting people by removing boundaries and barriers, many of their employees are still having trouble getting used to the idea of working in the open (physically or metaphorically), and the reasons why are many.  Ethan’s research with factory workers in China and several western companies uncovers the psychology behind our “uncomfortableness” with transparency.  He also provides practical solutions for helping managers (and those of us designing work spaces) think differently about the way we approach open work and work environments.  When I got the chance to interview Ethan Bernstein, I had a long list of questions for him!  He graciously shares some insights with me here.

LS: Ethan, if you are at a cocktail party (with non-academics) what would you tell people you do at Harvard?

Ethan Bernstein:  I study the impact of increasingly transparent workplaces on behavior and productivity. I’m particularly interested in relationship between these two things.  I also teach a first-year MBA leadership and organizational behavior course.  We cover leading teams, enhancing interpersonal effectiveness, managing change, and designing companies or institutions in a way that makes people better off and more productive.

We want organizations that breathe life into what we do rather than sucking the life out of us. I think too often we encounter the reverse – that’s part of the challenge of leadership. And that challenge is a moving target. With all of the new surveillance and transparency technologies emerging, leaders have new decisions to make about how they manage their people and organizations. I find the resulting questions fascinating.

LS:  How did you get interested in researching transparency?

EB:  I spent five years working for the Boston Consulting Group in Toronto and Tokyo for a wide variety of clients after graduating from Harvard’s JD/MBA program. Thirteen projects later, many in the organizations practice, I was deeply curious about the unexplained variance—organizations becoming more or less successful—based on how we “rewired” an organization through our work. About the same time, network analysis was just emerging as a new tool for sociologists and organization theorists (borrowed from graph theory developed by mathematicians many decades earlier), making use of all the new data being produced by new technologies in the workplace to analyze communication patterns and “social capital” in organizations. So I became very interested in using these new tools to find the relationship between social capital and performance.

Eventually this work led me to studying factory workers, because their performance is very easy to measure. And at the time, if you wanted to study factory work at large scale, the best place to do so was China. In an extremely transparent factory, where everything was opened and measured, where 1 in every 25 mobile devices in the world was being made, we did something ironically non-transparent: We planted a few “embedded students” to work undercover on these factory lines. They were immediately taught two ways of doing things: one when they were being watched, and another when they weren’t. And the way they worked when in private was more productive.

Why would they hide better ways of doing things in an environment in which they had no incentive to do so? Because, they said, they wanted to live up to others’ expectations of how they should work when they were being watched. This is a well-known principle of work in the field of drug production, and in particular generic drugs. At first that seemed problematic, but then again, it also seemed quite human. So we tried an experiment: we put up a curtain (kind of like a hospital room curtain) around each of several lines to see what would happen if the line workers could see each other, but were not constantly observed by others. Lines with the curtain were 10 to 15% more productive than the lines without the curtain. Workers within the curtain felt more comfortable experimenting, problem solving, and taking risks—and not wasting effort hiding in an effort to manage the attention of those around them who might be distracted by seeing something other than the old standard.

Ultimately – and this likely goes for all kinds of work – all this openness and transparency might have benefits (including cost benefits of increasing occupancy per square foot), but it can also impact behaviors that affect productivity.

Ethan Bernstein

Chinese workers in mobile phone factory surrounded by a curtain.

LS:  You know, I think this “being watched” concern might actually be the root cause of our issue with openness.  Often, when I’m working with teams to design their space, they use other reasons for not wanting to be in an open office environment. They say they need to be in an enclosed, or more private space to deal with personnel issues, or work with HIPAA patient information, or because they feel distracted which inhibits their more analytical or creative work.  All of these are valid concerns, but I wonder if these reasons mask an underlying psychological concern – that they can’t let their guard down if they are being observed every minute of their day.

EB:  That would also be supported by some work that was done long before I came around.  Erving Goffman describes how we have a “back stage” and a “front stage” self, and when you get to a certain number of people watching you, you turn to your front stage self (check out his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life).  Most people know what that feels like.  Curiosity drives us to want to be able to watch everybody else, and now with social media and building technology, there are more and more reasons to feel “exposed” in one way or another.  The audience is constantly growing. We want people to follow us online, but not necessarily motion-by-motion in the office.

The thing is, when we know someone is observing us, we really have a natural desire as a human being to live up to their expectations. So we do this backward calculation to figure out what others are expecting to see, and we try to deliver it.  And that’s not necessarily consistent with what organizations ask for from their employees.  Very often they are asking their employees to do something that is new and innovative – something unexpected.  But they are asking for innovation in an environment (in this case, the built environment) where employees have a natural human desire to be their front stage self, so they default to doing only what is expected of them.  And that’s not fair to workers – it puts them in a bind.

LS: I was just thinking about something that you wrote about the front stage self being appropriate for some activities, like tasks that don’t take a lot of thinking or creativity and are more transaction based.  Did I read that correctly?

EB:  That’s right.  That goes back to old research on “social facilitation,” or the audience effect.  Social facilitation says that when we are watched, there is an automatic arousal that happens in the body that allows us to be better at dominant tasks and less good at non-dominant tasks. We define dominant task as what is “practiced.”

LS:  So did you learn anything about this factory in China that helped you understand the right size or mix of people “within the curtain.” I mean, what are the conditions to make people feel more back stage than front stage?  Did people inside the curtain have to be on the same team, or the same organizational level?

EB:  After my first article in HBR came out, many people called me right away and said, “Does this mean that open offices are bad?” I said I don’t have clear evidence of that one way or another. In the case of the Chinese factory, because a whole line (~20 people) were within the curtain, there was still pressure from others to perform. You can’t just slack off, which I think is our image of a primary problem that individual private offices can enable. The curtain provided “group privacy,” not individual privacy—enough to feel comfortable being yourself, not so small that you don’t feel motivated to perform. But really there are so many different ways to think about this question – the impact of cultures, context and other contingencies. The good news is that I have an entire academic career to study this question!

LS:  What has your research shown you about knowledge workers in an open work environment?

EB: I recently was involved with a study of a large organization that was redesigning their space – moving from assigned cubicles to very open neighborhoods. In essence, like many organizations, the company was hoping for more “vibrancy” and inter-organizational interaction with the new design. They wanted to create impromptu collisions in order to increase innovation.

A number of their employees volunteered to wear sociometric badges several weeks before and after the move to the new space. These badges tracked their face-to-face communication with other employees – including who they spoke with, for how long and how often. We also had access to their patterns of email and instant messaging communication, so we could observe changes in interaction behavior, whether face-to-face or electronic. Interestingly, compared to their old space, we found that the amount of face-to-face communication declined in the open environment by about 70%. Email communication increased in its place, and instant messaging interaction remained roughly the same. And in this case, at least based on the organization’s own objectives and performance management system, productivity fell as a result of the substitution of electronic communication for rich, face-to-face interaction.


Sociometric badges used in study to determine frequency, duration and mix of face-to-face interactions

Why did more people turn to electronic communication in open space? We like to think that open concepts will create vibrant interaction. Then we walk into them and find people trying hard to avoid disruption (e.g., wearing the biggest headphones they can find), trying not to disturb others, and putting on an appearance of working intensely (their front-stage self) to meet others’ expectations of what a high-performing, hard worker looks like at work. I can only speculate at why face-to-face communication fell in this particular environment, but what might be a surprising result to those who design and imagine these spaces might not be very surprising to those who work in them. Just like in the Chinese factory, there is a lot of attention to manage (both one’s own and others’) in an open space.

LS:  I think a lot of workers would sympathize with this situation!  OK, so what advice would you give an architect or workplace consultant, so that they get to the right solution when designing a new space for their client? What’s something that they should add to their list of key questions?

EB:  I suggest never forgetting about the influence of the built environment on individual and team behaviors. As architects, the more questions you can ask about behaviors, the better off we will all be. Ask clients—and the people who will work in the space—to be brutally honest with you and try not to pander to the person who hired you who might be more interested in cost than long-term productivity. Ask the individuals who will work in the space to explain times when they were at their most productive—and ask for evidence, not just opinions. Their answer will likely be a good basis for designing their space.

LS:  And consider designing with curtains?

EB:  Yes!  At Harvard Business School, we’re in the process of turning part of the faculty dining space into a space that is more conducive to research collaboration. One of the key features of the design is a cylindrical space that has a curtain that goes around it. It is group space—permeable, but also private. I’m looking forward to seeing how it gets used.

LS:  So Ethan Bernstein, where can people find you and your research?

Ethan’s articles on HBR:

You also might be interested in the article “Why We Hide Some of Our Best Work