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Too noisy and crowded? The Pros and Cons of Open-Plan Office Design

on Sunday, 23 June 2019. Posted in Office Ergonomics, Occupational Health, Mental Wellbeing

OP Noise

Open plan (OP) offices are generally considered to be cost-effective, promote teamwork and collaboration and enhance a sense of wellbeing and inclusion. Recent research evidence challenges some of these assumptions though. In this article we examine available evidence on the advantages and disadvantages of open plan office design and suggest a practical way forward.

1. Cost efficient design

Advantages

Several researchers have found economic benefits resulting from open-plan office design, including a larger available area for seating that can accommodate more staff, ease of reconfiguration, reduction in maintenance, building and air-conditioning costs (Kim & de Dear, 2013; Maher & von Hippel, 2005).

Disadvantages

However, other researchers argue that temporary cost savings of OP offices could be outweighed by costs to productivity over the longer-term. For instance, a comprehensive literature review of open-plan office research cited several studies that highlight the impact of factors like noise, lack of privacy, distractions and unwanted interaction on worker efficiency (Kamarulzaman, Saleh, Hashim, Hashim, & Abdul-Ghani, 2011).

A way forward - opting for mixed office design

Given the potential cost-savings from open-plan office design, many contemporary businesses therefore seek a compromise, opting for a mixed office design with some OP and some closed space, that best meets the needs of the organisation and its staff (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline, 2002).

Mixed office design might include: 

• separate rooms for meetings.
• flexible spaces such as a combined kitchen and staff meeting/recreation space.
• hot desks for those who work from home (but are occasionally in the office).
• benches for those who work in IT (or similar roles).
• smaller, separate, open-plan offices for those performing similar functions or who are required to regularly collaborate.

2. Collaboration and teamwork

Advantages

Proponents of open-plan offices believe that they can promote collaboration and teamwork amongst staff (Kamarulzaman et al., 2011). OP design has certainly been enthusiastically adopted by companies such as Google and Facebook for these reasons.

Disadvantages

Then again, recent evidence problematises the assumption that simply removing office walls will promote association. For instance, Bernstein and Turban's (2018) research into two teams transitioning to open-plan offices, showed a significant decrease in face-to-face interaction (approx. 70%) and an increase in email and instant messenging (approx. 20% to 50%). They concluded that “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” (Bernstein & Turban, 2018, p. 1).

A way forward – taking privacy seriously

Therefore, any effective office design should provide adequate privacy.

Privacy measures might include:

• Partitions for visual and sound privacy (ideally 1500mm high partitions around each desk).
• Mixed OP spaces that combine with breakout rooms for private conversations, meetings and phone calls.
• The ability for staff to work from home.
• Hybrid spaces (and technology) that fuse media and physical space, allowing staff, and customers to interact, wherever they might be located.

3. Staff wellbeing and inclusion

Advantages

Workers can enjoy the camaraderie of an OP office, finding them to be broadly inclusive spaces (Bernstein, as cited in Camerota 2018).

Disadvantages

On the other hand, studies suggest that OP office design can be detrimental to staff health and wellbeing, including mental health. Several large studies have found more sickness absence for those working in OP offices (Danielsson, Chungkham, Wulff, & Westerlund, 2014; Pejtersen, Feveile, Christensen, & Burr, 2011). Moreover, Lee et al.’s (2016) survey of 334 employees specifically highlight potential mental health risks of open-plan offices, finding that the impact of noise disturbance on people’s self- reported psychological health was significant.

Several researchers argue that staff wellbeing in open-plan offices is strongly correlated to an individual’s sense of personal control over their work environment, including noise disturbance (Brennan et al., 2002; Danielsson et al., 2014; Kim & de Dear, 2013).

A way forward – maximising employee control

In order to ensure staff wellbeing and inclusion, aim to adopt strategies that enhance employee control.

These might include:

• Consult with staff throughout any design process.
• Establish office protocols around respecting others privacy, telephone and conversation noise, and rules around hot, smelly, food at desks.
• Create infection control protocols and expectations around staying at home if sick.
• Suggestion boxes for ongoing issues.
• Offering flexi-time options and working from home.
• Meeting rooms situated away from desks to avoid noise disturbance to workers when people are entering and leaving meetings.
• Provision of headphones if required.
• Cater to the special needs of workers such as those with hearing impairment or sensory challenges, in order to maximise the benefits of workforce diversity.

References:

Bernstein, E., & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions B, 373(20170239). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239

Brennan, A., Chugh, J. S., & Kline, T. (2002). Traditional versus open office design: A longitudinal study. Environment and behaviour, 34(3), 279-299.

Danielsson, C. B., Chungkham, H. S., Wulff, C., & Westerlund, H. (2014). Office design's impact on sick leave rates. Ergonomics, 57(2), 139-147. doi:10.1080/00140139.2013.871064

Kamarulzaman, N., Saleh, A. A., Hashim, S. Z., Hashim, H., & Abdul-Ghani, A. A. (2011). An Overview of the Influence of Physical Office Environments Towards Employee. Procedia Engineering, 20, 262-268. doi:10.1016/j.proeng.2011.11.164

Kim, J., & de Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18-26. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.06.007

Maher, A., & von Hippel, C. (2005). Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(2), 219-229. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.05.002

Pejtersen, J. H., Feveile, H., Christensen, K. B., & Burr, H. (2011). Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices--a national cross sectional questionnaire survey. Scand J Work Environ Health, 37(5), 376-382. doi:10.5271/sjweh.3167

 

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