It’s an idyllic idea: All your employees sitting at desks close together, with no walls or barriers to limit communication. They talk freely, sharing ideas and collaborating on projects. The office buzzes with energy and team spirit. Everyone is happy!
The problem: They aren’t really happy at all.
A recent study featured in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that employees who work in open-plan office layouts—where employees’ workstations and desks are in large open spaces rather than in private offices—are least happy with their office environment. The researchers surveyed 42,000 U.S. office workers in 303 office buildings on their satisfaction level with their office environment on seven different attributes, including room temperature, privacy, ease of interaction and overall sentiments. Two-thirds of those surveyed worked in offices with open-plan layouts, while one-quarter worked in private offices and a small fraction shared a single room with co-workers.
The study found that workers in open-plan offices—even those with partitions to help create some feelings of privacy—were very dissatisfied with the sound privacy in their office. (Partitions probably hinder privacy, the authors note, because “visual screens make ambient noise harder to predict and feel less controllable,” according to a summary of the study by the British Psychological Society.
Overall, the researchers found that people who worked in private offices were most satisfied with their workspace.
"The most powerful individual factor, in terms of its association with workers' overall satisfaction levels, was ‘amount of space,’” the British Psychological Society notes. “Other factors varied in their association with overall satisfaction depending on the different office layouts. Noise was more strongly associated with overall satisfaction for open-plan office workers whereas light and ease of interaction were more strongly associated with overall satisfaction for workers in private offices.”
The study's authors note that their research builds on a growing body of research that shows that open-plan office layouts aren’t nearly as beneficial as originally believed. In fact, research has shown that open layouts actually deter employees from communicating due to the lack of privacy.
“The open-plan proponents' argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature," the authors write.
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