Open-plan offices are a false economy

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It wouldn't be too wild an assumption that very few of us enjoy working in an open-plan office. For all the propaganda that they improve communication, boost team spirit and increase efficiency, the fact is that as far as most of their inmates are concerned, open-plan offices are noisy, distracting and stressful –just the wrong sort of environment, in fact, in which to work effectively.

The trouble is that many organisations apparently continue to inhabit a nineteenth-century mind-set about work and the workplace in which managers believe that employees have to be constantly supervised, that departments and functions should be kept separated and advances up the organisational hierarchy must be marked with more territorial space.

And of course, cramming more employees in a smaller space is always going to have its financial attractions. But according to a new study of more than 40,000 American office workers, it's a false economy. In fact there is no evidence that open plan spaces offer any benefits all – least of all improved interaction and communication.

Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear from the University of Sydney Faculty of Architecture used a standard questionnaire to evaluate how satisfied workers were with their office environment. Two thirds of those surveyed worked in open-plan offices (with or without partitions), a quarter had private offices and the remainder shared a single room with co-workers.

The findings, outlined in The British Psychological Society Research Digest, confirm that workers in private offices were the most satisfied with their workspace.

The biggest issue with open-plan offices was "sound privacy", with the noise problem being even more marked in open-plan offices with partitions – or cubes. Meanwhile, personal space (or the lack thereof) emerged from the survey as the biggest single factor in determining overall satisfaction levels.

"Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)," the researchers found, "particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues."

But the key finding as far as debunking once and for all any arguments in favour of open-plan environments is that the "benefits of enhanced 'ease of interaction' were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration."

In other words, the costs of lost privacy and increased distraction are not outweighed in open-plan environments by the benefits of ease of communication. And just to confirm this, the study also found that workers in private offices are more satisfied with ease of interaction than those in open-plan spaces.

While the Australian team don't quantify what this means in terms of productivity, a 2005 report by the UK Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment found that a well-designed, employee-friendly office environment can boost productivity by as much as a quarter.

And a separate survey the same year found that eight out of 10 professionals considered the quality of their working environment very important to job satisfaction and more than a third considered the working environment as a factor in accepting or rejecting a job offer.

As the Australian team state: "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.

"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."

Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices appears in the December 2013 Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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