Monday, 19 August 2013

The supposed benefits of open-plan offices do not outweigh the costs

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

--Further reading--
From the BBC: The decline of privacy in open-plan offices.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Mark Levison said...

Interesting. Have you seen any research about offices for teams (groups of 7 +/- 2 people with a common goal), that are open within the team, but closed to the outside world?


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Unknown said...

There is a buzz in the air about the open plan and the balance of focus and collaboration space. Our research at Gensler continues the discussion with findings that point to the importance of understanding work types, activities, balance and generations.

@a6ruled said...

open plan offices are about administrative convenience and surveillance, surely? interesting that this is positioned against a literature that suggests people like them.

Adina Wollam, M.S. said...

What a misleading title! As a business psychologist, I was expecting something ... else. Psychologists have understood this for some time. But as @a6ruled pointed out, there's such a thing as management. Not to mention, lower walls between cubicles are cheaper. Stirring the pot may bump up the number of readers, but it's not so effective for credibility.

Unknown said...

The title perfectly captures the rationale & findings of the study - your criticism makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

Open office plans are pushed by people who sit in offices and state that they can not work in those environments because they have to many important/private conversations. I challenged our leadership with sitting in a workstation and was summarily scolded.

Anonymous said...

The Gensler report referred to above hits the nail on the head. It's all about balance. If you provide open plan offices (and I can't see this changing any time soon) then you can't force people to sit at their desk all day. They need spaces to relax, to recharge, to contemplate, to collaborate or interact. This means providing a variety of workmodes -

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if it's sad or funny that people think open-plan offices are given to employees with the the idea "that open spaces foster more communication between staff".

When Robert Propst was working at Herman Miller in the 1960's to create the Action Office, predecessor to modern "open plan offices", his research found that open environments actually reduced employee communication. Bosses liked it specifically because they wanted employees to work, not talk.

Now we've come full circle, and companies are trying to sell open-plan offices using the exact opposite of their previous justification -- and one which is not backed up by any research.

It should be clear by now that people trying to push open-plan offices don't care about communication, one way or the other. They have made up their minds that they want an open floorplan, and they're inventing justifications for it. Today the "spontaneous employee communication" is in fashion, so that is the justification we're given, even though there's no reason to believe that it helps this.

Frank said...

Interesting article on open plan offices. I agree offices need to be an environment where staff members are comfortable and motivated to achieve targets and results.

Anonymous said...

I work in an open-plan office and I have to agree that they are horrible. Having half the office walking all around you is extremely stressful and distracting, especially those that pass behind you.

Also, I would like to disagree with the reply above that balance is required in an open space... the stress of being visibly "not working" easily removes any purported relaxing effect of such spaces, which makes them useless at anything other than looking vaguely trendy.

The only real space in which you can relax, recharge, contemplate is a space that's really yours, and in an open floor office you have no space at all.

Anonymous said...

Pretty obvious businesses will gravitate towards the most economic solution. I know some people genuinely like open plan, I guess it's subjective but one way or another, the fact of the matter is that you don't see any managers in open plan which makes me wonder - if its not good enough for them then don't waste our time trying to persuade us of the benefits

Unknown said...

This is practically a word for word copy of this article:

Unknown said...

For the record, my article was published BEFORE the article on! Please be more careful in future.

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that the conversation around open offices is framed solely in terms of communication and employee satisfaction, when one of the central issues is transparency and actually doing your job. Not all employees are self motivated go-getters who energetically churn through projects in the peace of a private office. The temptation to spend 20 minutes on facebook, 25 on private email, 15 minutes sorting through music to play, 10 minutes staring out the window and so on is there even for people who are actually self motivated. Knowing that the team you work with can pop their heads in at any moment, or can actually see your monitor, makes wasting time less comfortable. I don't think this is about trust, but rather making it easier for employees to do what they should be doing. The studies I'm interested in aren't ones that ask employees "do you like being forced to work with other people in a way that makes it impossible to privately waste time", but rather real studies of the differences in work output that exist between the two *for different occupations*, as well as figures like the average number of social media pageloads by those in private offices vs open plan. I mean I like working from my lounge room where I can relex with a movie playing and spend half the day looking at the view from the window, but does that mean that's where I should put my employees?

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