The worlds of business, office design and psychology really need to get their heads together. Large open-plan offices have become the norm across modern cities despite a sizeable literature documenting the disadvantages, including increased distraction and diminished worker satisfaction.
Open-plan offices are favoured by companies largely because of economic factors – more employees can be housed in a smaller space. But there are also supposed communication benefits. The idea is that open spaces foster more communication between staff and boost community spirit. A new study based on a survey of over 42,000 US office workers in 303 office buildings finds no evidence to support this supposition whatever.
Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear analysed the workers’ answers to the industry standard “Post-occupancy Evaluation” that asks them to rate their satisfaction with seven aspects of their office environment including: temperature, lighting, privacy and ease of interaction, plus it asks about their overall satisfaction with their personal workspace. Two thirds of the surveyed workers were based in open-plan offices (with or without partial partitions); a quarter had private offices; and a small fraction shared a single room with co-workers.
Overall, workers in private offices were the most satisfied with their workspace. Workers in open-plan offices expressed strong dissatisfaction with sound privacy, and this was even more so the case in open-plan offices with partitions. This is probably because visual screens make ambient noise harder to predict and feel less controllable.
The most powerful individual factor, in terms of its association with workers’ overall satisfaction levels, was “amount of space”. Other factors varied in their association with overall satisfaction depending on the different office layouts. Noise was more strongly associated with overall satisfaction for open-plan office workers whereas light and ease of interaction were more strongly associated with overall satisfaction for workers in private offices.
But the key finding relates to whether the costs of lost privacy were outweighed for open-plan office workers by the benefits of ease of communication. There is in fact past field research to suggest that open-plan offices can discourage communication between colleagues due to lack of privacy. Consistent with this, there was a trend in the current study for workers in private offices to be more satisfied with ease of interaction than open-plan workers. Moreover, analysis showed that scores on ease of interaction did not offset open-plan workers’ dissatisfaction with noise and privacy issues in terms of their overall satisfaction with their workspace.
“Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction,” the researchers concluded. They added: “… considering previous researchers’ finding that satisfaction with workspace environment is closely related to perceived productivity, job satisfaction and organisational outcomes, the open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”
Jungsoo Kim, and Richard de Dear (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.06.007
From the BBC: The decline of privacy in open-plan offices.