Study highlights the potential disadvantages of open plan offices

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We’ve recently read with interest several articles on the pros and cons of open plan offices and according to a recent study by the University of Sydney, open-plan offices do not improve staff communication, productivity or morale.

The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and involved the analysis of over 42,500 samples collected from 303 office buildings in the United States, Canada, Australia and Finland.

Open plan offices, in other words offices in which partitioned or non-partitioned desks are arranged around a large room, were developed with the intention of improving teamwork and encouraging interaction between workers. (see our blog post of May 8th)

However the study, which collected responses over a ten year period, has found that the advantages are far outweighed by disadvantages.

Respondents to the survey were asked to list the satisfaction or dissatisfaction they felt for a range of aspects of the design of their office, including noise levels, privacy and temperature.
Researchers wrote in the paper: “In general, open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates that enclosed office layouts.”

Between 20% and 40% of open plan office occupants expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy

The study found that over half of the respondents who worked in open-plan cubicles and 49% who worked in open-plan offices with no partitions, were dissatisfied with levels of sound privacy. The study’s lead author, Jungsoo Kim, said: “What the data tells us is that, in terms of occupant satisfaction, the disadvantages brought by noise disruption were bigger than the predicted benefits of increased interaction.

“Between 20% and 40% of open plan office occupants expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy and over 20% of all office occupants, regardless of office layout, registered dissatisfaction with the thermal conditions.”

The study didn’t analyse whether open plan offices were more productive but Mr Kim said he felt it was likely that workers tended to be distracted by being able to overhear their colleagues’ conversations: “It’s not part of my research but based on the literature on noise distraction, previous researchers have said that intelligible speech interrupts cognitive processes. Steady, constant noise, like ventilation noise, doesn’t interrupt people’s thinking too much but intelligible speech does.”

Head of Architectural Design Science at the University of Sydney, Professor Richard de Dear, was a co-author of the report and said that the satisfaction of workers was crucial because it has an impact on productivity: “The productivity benefits of teams working together have been used to sell the open plan office for decades. Yet, if you do these evaluations and actually talk to occupants of open plan offices, very few people think that they are productive spaces. You need places to concentrate.”

At Ultimate Office Solutions we our Space Planning and Design service could help you create a productive, positive working environment – why not get in touch with us for further details?

Posted October 31, 2013

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