Profile: Ethan Bernstein, Organizational Behaviorist

One of the most percipient authorities on the future of work and the workplace

Ethan Bernstein studies and teaches organizational behavior at Harvard Business School and is one of the most percipient authorities on the future of work and the workplace.

These bits were published in earlier Work Futures posts, although the last is new. I was inspired to profile Bernstein by a recent New Yorker article in which he says

Hybrid is likely to deliver the worst of both worlds.


In The Truth About Open Offices, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber jab a finger in the eye of today’s prejudices about the workplace. Writing in a strongly admonitory tone — with a strong undertone of disdain for the unexamined premise that there is a single, best form of workplace — the authors advocate extensive research and experimentation around what they call the ‘anatomy of collaboration’:

Workers are surrounded by a physical architecture: individual offices, cubicles, or open seating; a single floor, multiple floors, or multiple buildings; a dedicated space for the organization, a space shared with other companies, or a home office. That physical architecture is paired with a digital architecture: email, enterprise social media, mobile messaging, and so forth.

But although knowledge workers are influenced by this architecture, they decide, individually and collectively, when to interact. Even in open spaces with colleagues in close proximity, people who want to eschew interactions have an amazing capacity to do so. They avoid eye contact, discover an immediate need to use the bathroom or take a walk, or become so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (perhaps with the help of headphones). Ironically, the proliferation of ways to interact makes it easier not to respond: For example, workers can simply ignore a digital message.

When employees do want to interact, they choose the channel: face-to-face, video conference, phone, social media, email, messaging, and so on. Someone initiating an exchange decides how long it should last and whether it should be synchronous (a meeting or a huddle) or asynchronous (a message or a post). The recipient of, say, an email, a Slack message, or a text decides whether to respond immediately, down the road, or never. These individual behaviors together make up an anatomy of collaboration similar to an anthill or a beehive. It is generated organically as people work and is shaped by the beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of thinking that define the organization’s culture.

The authors explore case studies where companies found that open office plans led to decreases in productivity, examples where decreasing interaction between different functional teams — in one case by moving people to other buildings — led to beneficial results.

The key takeaway from this — which I recommend you read in its entirety — is that companies have to decide how to measure what behaviors and outcomes they want, and experiment with office architecture and interaction patterns to gain them. You can’t simply adopt what WeWork office designers give you and expect to operate at some nebulous peak of efficiency.

In AirPods Are a Survival Tool for Open-Plan Offices, Amanda Mull brings research by Ethan Bernstein and Sally Augustin to bear on the discussion about the negatives of open offices [emphasis mine]:

According to Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies organizational behavior, it makes sense that this subtle tactic for avoiding constant interaction has seeped into office environments. “People are very good at creating spaces for themselves, and these days you look at everybody and almost without exception they’re on their phones with headphones in their ears,” he says. In a 2018 study, Bernstein and his team found that open offices decrease face-to-face interaction among co-workers by as much as 70 percent, in stark contrast to the designers’ stated goal of collaborative teamwork.


According to the design psychologist Sally Augustin, all of this irritation has come about because open offices ignore some essential elements of human psychological development. “We get revved up just being around other people, so in a workplace you’ve always got that force energizing you,” she says. “When you’re doing intellectual work, you’ll do it better in an environment that’s generally less energizing.” Although headphones can help filter auditory interruptions, they can’t block visual ones, which Augustin says can be just as disruptive to performance and focus.

AirPods also can’t change the fact that you’re just sitting in the middle of an open room, which Augustin notes is stressful no matter what you’re doing. “When you can be approached from the rear, a little part of your brain is always vigilant,” she says. “It’s not about what you’re looking at on your screen or anything. It’s much more fundamental than that.”

The good news is that trends are already turning away from open offices in favor of designs that have a range of space types, including those that allow workers privacy and relief from constant stimulation. “This is how humans work,” Augustin explains. Evolutionarily, our open-plan stress response goes back to a time long before office politics. “We like to think we’ve come so far from our days on the savanna, but maybe not.”

We haven't changed much in our short time on the planet.

Lila McLellan returns to the never-resolved issues surrounding open-plan offices in Open office plans have a surprising effect on communication at work. However, since Quartz now has a hard paywall I couldn’t read beyond the first paragraph. Instead, I searched for the study she cited, The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration by Ethan Bernstein [emphasis mine]:

Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into “open,” transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors, and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes. In two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, we empirically examined — using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers — the effect of open office architectures on employees’ face-to-face, email, and instant messaging (IM) interaction patterns. Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM. This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture. The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behavior of workspaces that trend toward fewer spatial boundaries.

Can we stop the baloney about open offices as some glorious wellspring of cooperation and innovation? It’s simply a drive to cut expenses on real estate. Want more productivity? Put the walls back!

Here’s an apt summary by Bernstein of a related study he undertaken earlier:

In a study involving human subjects, Bernstein et al. found that intermittent rather than constant social influence produced the best performance among humans collectively engaged in complex problem solving.

People need alone time to think their best.

The full study is here.

[Note: this is support for the ‘bursty communications’ style that I described in Paradoxes of Engagement: Less Communication Is More, recently.]

In Has The Pandemic Transformed The Office Forever?, John Seabrook has written a long and detailed architecture-oriented New Yorker article that summarizes the history of the business office and attempts to lay out the questions about the future of the workplace, after the pandemic wanes.

The hybrid office sounds like a logical post-pandemic approach, and many companies are trying it, but mixing in-person and remote workers presents new challenges for managers. Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the workplace, told me that a hybrid setup is very hard to get right, and that he advises businesses to avoid it: “I’d say stay all virtual—hybrid is likely to deliver the worst of both worlds.” A hybrid company still has substantial real-estate costs, and it also has to contend with the potentially serious threat to company culture posed by resentful remote workers who feel that they’ve been unfairly denied plum assignments and promotions. And what about all the people who return to work to discover that they no longer have a desk, and that the sweaters and photographs and other personal items they left behind have been packed up or, worse, placed on a table of shame? As Bernstein put it, “People generally prefer a ‘home’ to a ‘hotel’—in life and at work.”



'Work is the single most important way of proving your worth' in the U.S., professor says — and it's making Americans miserable | Gili Malinsky talks to a variety of researchers about the American fixation on work as the foundation of self-worth. The article’s subtitle says it all:

In the U.S., one expert [Anne Helen Petersen] says, "the more you work, the better person you are."

As Malinsky writes,

That attitude toward employment — that belief that work and being a worker is at the core of someone's identity — is prevalent throughout the U.S.

"There are people who identify with their jobs everywhere," says Ludmila Praslova, a professor of psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. "But I think the proportion of people who identify themselves by their work is very high in the States."

Steven Vallas, a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, goes even further in describing how Americans relate to work. "Whether it's personal fulfillment, social inclusion, or respectability," he says, in the U.S., "work is the single most important way of proving your worth" as a person.

The cult of overwork has a deep hold on us, and this is a real challenge now when so many have lost their jobs during the pandemic. But identifying so strongly with our work means Americans are unhappy when unemployed.

And, also, is one of the reasons the United States is 18th on the 2020 World Happiness Report, behind Canada and the UK, and way behind the leaders: Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway, which share an emphasis on work-life balance.

I am reminded of this quote:

The way our capitalist society is organized, it accommodates the workplace as a kind of alibi. If you’re trying to avoid difficult areas in your emotional life, you can just say, ‘Sorry, I’ve got too much work on right now.’ We’re invited to disappear into our professional commitments.

| Kazuo Ishiguro, cited by Giles Harvey in Kazuo Ishiguro Sees What the Future Is Doing to Us

In a Changing Military, the Army Eases Its Rules for Women’s Hair | Dave Phillips writes about the US Army’s long-overdue recasting of rules for female soldiers’ hair, relaxing the rule guiding the 127,000 women serving in the Army and National Guard.

For the first time, women will be allowed to have buzz cuts. And they will be able to wear combinations of styles, such as locks pulled back in a ponytail, which for years were off limits. The new rules allow short ponytails at all times, and long ponytails in combat and in training when a bun might otherwise interfere with equipment.


The share of women in the military has grown steadily since World War II, though during the early years of integration the all-male leadership kept women in token nursing and secretarial roles, often with their rank and pay capped. Families were considered a breach of regulations. Women who became pregnant in uniform were automatically discharged until 1972, when a young lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped take the Defense Department to the Supreme Court.

Since the 1970s the number of women in the Army has grown from about 2 percent to about 15 percent of the force. In recent years, they have integrated into nearly all combat units and been promoted to senior leadership positions.


The military has developed an especially outsize reliance on Black women, who, Ms. Germano noted, account for nearly a third of all women in the military, even though they make up only about 15 percent of the civilian female population. Black women now serve in the military at a far higher rate than any other demographic group.


And the regulations for the first time include guidance on breastfeeding, allowing soldiers to wear a specifically designed nursing T-shirt under their camouflage coat, and authorizing women to unzip the uniform and, without using a cover, “breastfeed anywhere the soldier and child are otherwise authorized to be.”

It’s only 2021, after all. Men still can’t have beards, though trimmed mustaches are allowed.