How do open offices impact workers?

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(Editor’s note: This article is reprinted from Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise of harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.)

Following the rising cost of real estate and a desire to increase collaboration and communication among employees, the open-plan office has been trending over the past decades. However, research about the impact of the open-plan office on humans is equivocal.

The results are mixed depending on the nature of one’s work and job requirements.  There is a need for privacy in jobs requiring a high level of concentration, whereas jobs benefitting from teamwork and knowledge sharing do benefit from an open workspace.

Our study, Turning the Mirror on The Architects: A Study of Open-Plan Office and Work Behaviors at an Architectural Company, aimed to understand the relationship between perceptions of three characteristics of open-plan office (acoustical privacy, visual privacy, office density) and the impact they yield on employees’ judgement- as well as the affect-driven behaviors.

We collected data from the SHINE Well-being Survey conducted with about 450 employees located in 20 regional office locations at an architecture and engineering firm. Restricting our data to employees of a design firm enables our research team to examine participants who are already sensitive to the impacts of space due to the nature of their work.

Variables of interest included:

  • employee perception of the workspace which includes privacy, office density and fit to workspace (measured by how the employee feels the workspace enhances their individual work effectiveness, whether they feel the workspace is an attractive aspect of the job, whether the space embodies the values of the organization, and their overall satisfaction of their work space).
  • employee rating of social relationships, self-reported mood (i.e. irritability).
  • optimal functioning (number of limited ability days) and work impacts (job satisfaction, work engagement and job performance).

Following the model of behavior in an open-plan office setting based on affective events theory, we examined the mediation roles of irritability and perception of fit to workspace.

Our results show that employees’ perception of lack of privacy and high office density:

  • negatively affects job satisfaction, work engagement and internal work relation
  • increases number of limited ability days
  • positively affects expressive personal relations among coworkers and job performance

Mediation roles of negative emotions, i.e. irritability, and perception of fit to workspace was confirmed.

The full paper can be found here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02178/full