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Open plan offices attract highest levels of worker dissatisfaction: study

Open plan offices attract the highest levels of worker dissatisfaction, with cramped quarters, lack of privacy and noise…

Open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts, the data showed. John Blower

Open plan offices attract the highest levels of worker dissatisfaction, with cramped quarters, lack of privacy and noise topping the list of gripes, a large study has found.

An open plan workplace, in which enclosed rooms are eschewed in favour of partitioned or non-partitioned desks arranged around a large room, are supposed to promote interaction between workers and boost teamwork.

However, a study of over 40,000 survey responses collected over a decade has found that the benefits for workers are quickly outweighed by the disadvantages.

The study, conducted by the University of Sydney and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, involved analysis of 42,764 survey samples collected in 303 office buildings in the US, Finland, Australia and Canada by the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley since 2000.

The surveys asked respondents to list their level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction felt for various aspects of office design such as temperature, visual privacy and noise.

According to the University of Sydney’s analysis of the data, around two-thirds of respondents work in open plan offices.

“In general, open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

More than half of the occupants in open-plan cubicles (59% for high partitioned cubicle and 58% for low partitioned cubicle) and 49% in open-plan with no or limited partitions expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of sound privacy, the analysis found.

“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,” said lead author Jungsoo Kim, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning.

“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.”

Mr Kim said his analysis did not look at whether open plan offices are more productive but that he suspected that workers found overhearing snippets of colleagues' conversations distracting.

“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.”

Professor Richard de Dear, Head of Architectural Design Science at the University of Sydney and a co-author of the paper, said worker satisfaction was important because it was linked to 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.”

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Tarento

    Business Analyst

    I work in an open plan office and I find it very agreeable. I wonder if this research takes into account factors such as whether or not the office suite was specifically designed to be open plan and the demographic of the respondents? I suspect that people working in well designed spaces and younger people would appreciate open plan offices more.

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  2. Perry Gretton
    Perry Gretton is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    I worked in an open plan office once. The chatter and interruptions were very distracting, and I took to working at home as often as I could to get something done.

    I'm sure there are situations where people need to be close together to be productive; however, there are plenty of people who need to concentrate on the task at hand. Being "in the flow" is not something you can switch on and off any time you please.

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    1. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Perry Gretton

      The key, Perry is in your profession: writer. The last job i had was in an open plan office, a newspaper office. I found it impossible to work there. But I think back to visiting my mother, also a journalist, in the old Mirror office, it wasn't called open plan there, they just sat there clattering away on their big typewriters and churning out stories.

      It take a certain type - or we've gone soft.

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  3. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I am not surprised that generally office workers prefer closed to open plan offices. More to the point, I would have thought, is a cost:benefit analysis. Open plan offices cost a bit in lost productivity, but is this bigger than the considerable extra costs of providing closed offices?

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    1. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Hi Gavin -- you're right, the study does note the economic benefit of open plan offices. From the paper: "In addition to tangible economic benefits of open-plan offices such as increased net usable area, higher occupant density and ease of re-configuration (Duffy, 1992; Hedge, 1982), the open-plan office layout is believed by many to facilitate communication and interaction between co-workers by removing internal walls, which should improve individual work performance and organisational productivity (Brand & Smith, 2005; Kupritz, 2003). However there is not much empirical evidence to support these widespread beliefs (Kaarlela-Tuomaala, Helenius, Keskinen, & Hongisto, 2009; Smith- Jackson & Klein, 2009)."

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    2. Greg Young

      Program Director

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      I've yet to work in an open plan office where the space was reconfigured, no matter how easy that might be. Once the floor plan is laid out, it tends to be set in stone, and all that is preserved is the ocnstant interruptions from ambient noise and passing foot traffic.

      One variation on the open plan office is the hot-desked open plan office, where you do not even have your own inefficient space to work in but must compete with your colleagues for a desk. I would imagine that would be even less productive and popular with the workers required to use it.

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    3. Jeremy Culberg

      Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

      In reply to Greg Young

      The ease of reconfiguration is usually quite constrained by the location of power points and data / phone points. For truly multi-function environments, things like compressed air and water also produce some constraints.
      In the open office environments I've been in, the most effective way to get work done was to put on a pair of earmuffs - highly visible way of saying 'do not disturb' and also quite challenging to disturb.

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    4. Douglas Moran

      Technical Writer

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I think most individual contributors would agree, if you asked them, that the purported reason to move to "open plan" seemed like B.S. to cover the real reason, which Gavin touched on: It's cheaper. I don't know how *much* cheaper, but one must assume that many fewer, shorter cubical walls, with fewer individual desks and office setups, saves a considerable amount of money per-person. So the explanation that it "increases interaction and boosts teamwork" rings hollow.

      Working in cube land is…

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  4. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Maybe what we say makes us productive or unproductive isn't always accurate? It would be interesting to look at some objective data as well.

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    1. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Hi James. The author, Jungsoo Kim, told me in the interview that it is very hard to work out objective ways of measuring productivity. "The typical way of measuring productivity is by asking people to do simple tests like proof reading but that often doesn’t represent the work most people do in their office. It doesn’t reflect creativity," he said.

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      Good point Sunanda! Maybe it would then be interesting to know what managers feel is most productive as well.

      (Of course I hope what makes us satisfied is more productive - who wants an unpleasant workplace - but I just wonder what evidence there is. The China economy seems to be doing pretty well with command and control work environments.)

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    3. Kevin Smith

      Business Adviser

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      "it is very hard to work out objective ways of measuring productivity."

      For as long as I can remember I have listened to politicians, bureaucrats, business and employer groups, academics and economists saying that we need to increase productivity if we are to be economically competitive. How would they know, given the above statement?

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    4. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Kevin Smith

      When politicians discuss productivity they mostly refer to the country's gross domestic product divided by inputs, which for labour is hours worked (*not* wages paid, as many business commentators self interestedly assume). At this macro level it is at least possible to measure productivity, altho it has methodological challenges. It is much harder at the micro level and particularly for individual work places.

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  5. Anna Figueiredo

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The open plan tends to encourage incidental chatter about everything but work!!! Headphones and music allow my concentration to be fixed on tasks that require a great deal of focus.
    The open plan office benefits from discouraging people from wasting time online ('Cyberloafing') as you'd feel your colleagues eyeing your time wasting ways!!

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  6. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    The article and commentators appear to have nailed the positive and negatives about open plan offices. Personally, noise and distraction is a small price to pay for the gold of instant communication between people working on a common project.

    The article does prompt another study - the trend in many manufacturing workplaces for managers eschew their desks in favour of a roving role. Most of their day is spent moving around the plant, in meetings or using their IPad or IPhone for emails, texts and discussions.

    The days of the finding the General Manager sitting at their desk in a magnificent office are over.

    Just a thought.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Jarrod Chestney-Law

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      "Personally, noise and distraction is a small price to pay for the gold of instant communication between people working on a common project."

      For me, most of the "gold" is fools gold. People asking questions they could have looked up themselves, but because they can stand up and bellow across the office, they don't.

      I estimate that I am around three times less productive than if I were in more quiet surroundings. The constant noise etc...slows me down substantially while I'm trying to hold and manipulate a large quantity of abstract information in my head.

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  7. mixmaxmin

    logged in via Twitter

    That is why it is called work and we get paid to be at work. Otherwise it would be called leisure and we wouldn't get paid to do it, but business is getting a fat chunk of "un-quantified" difficult to measure productivity gains by having us connected all the time a.k.a. work for free. We are close to merging the two, but can business really get its head around it - how many of you really NEED to be physically where you are now to do your job? Free time is the most expensive time. As a worker it is cheaper to be at work than at home doing... What a conundrum, open plan or not?

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  8. Paul Denize

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Cause and Effect

    I see lots of fire damage everywhere that I see Firetrucks. These must be causing the damage. Clearly this is flawed thinking. So why accept that Open plan offices attract the highest levels of worker dissatisfaction. Perhaps companies that choose to spend a little more to provide offices that pack less people per square foot, or those that spend a lot and even decorate - may in fact also provide many other benefits that provide workplace satisfaction. Providing offices may…

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    1. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Paul Denize

      I see your point Paul, but in these surveys the workers were asked specifically about their levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction to environmental factors at work such as noise, level of visual privacy and temperature (not about decoration or other worker benefits).

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  9. Jay Gee

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Open office environments are all about learning how to adjust to your surroundings. I wear $299 noise cancelling headphones and place a structure on my head that blocks my peripheral vision. I also attached a large board to the back of my monitor to simulate a wall so when I am writing code so I can do so without having to see constant movement around my monitor screen. My manager is also very understanding of the distractions of the open environment, so we are given one day a week where we can work…

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    1. Perry Gretton
      Perry Gretton is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Jay Gee

      Jay, You've made me realise just how wrong I was to be so dismissive of open plan work environments. I wish I'd known all this before throwing my job over and ending up on the dole (I couldn't find a position that didn't involve an open plan office). Who knows where I'd be now.

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