Open plan offices – good or bad? The evidence from psychological research

Anthony Haynes writes: A perennial issue in human resource management is office layout and design. In recent years, open plan has been gaining ground as management’s preferred layout. Its perceived advantages include:

  • cost savings (principally, reducing square footage per employee);
  • ease of monitoring (or perhaps ‘surveillance’);
  • greater communication between staff.

However, recent research published by the British Psychological Society (BPS) challenges some of these perceptions. The research by Jungsoo Kim, and Richard de Dear has been helpfully summarised in the BPS’s research digest — the link is as follows: http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/the-supposed-benefits-of-open-plan.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter.

Kim and Dear found that open plan office produce a number of disadvantages. In particular, employees suffer from a lack of ‘sound privacy’. Surprisingly, this is actually worse in an open plan office that has partitions — evidently, partitions make ambient noise more difficult to predict and hence more distracting.

They also cite research that open plan layouts can reduce communication, because of the lack of privacy. According to Kim and Dear, there is a trend “for workers in private offices to be more satisfied with ease of interaction than open-plan workers’.

Their conclusion is arresting and controversial: “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.”

We’d welcome views from office staff: open plan, good or bad?

 

The reference for the full research paper is here: Jungsoo Kim & Richard de Dear(2013), ‘Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices’  Journal of Environmental Psychology DOI:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.06.007.

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4 thoughts on “Open plan offices – good or bad? The evidence from psychological research

  1. We have an open plan office with low partitions between the desks. While it does work well for communication when working together as a team, there are issues when reviewing work with staff and noise when on the phone.

    I’ve worked in an office where I had my own office and it can work well for productivity but you don’t feel like part of the team.

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    1. Thank you, Kathryn. I agree about private office leading to a lack of team feeling. Think the answer might lie in a mixed economy – perhaps some open plan, some private space, some office spaces with say 4 people in rather than 40…

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  2. I too think the ideal way forward is to have a mixture of formats for work spaces and allow people to have flexibility in how they choose to use the space.

    For me the article misses two important factors. Firstly individual differences between people. Some people are more likely to feel comfortable in a more private space, while the personality and motivations of others may lead to them thriving in a more open office.

    Secondly, different aspects of work by their nature lend themselves to being better performed in different areas. It has often struck me as somewhat strange that in some of the businesses I go to technical and knowledge based work is going on in an open office, whilst mangers are enclosed in glass boxes. This of course brings in the whole issue of status symbols, which is another enormous issued in workplace (and organisation) design.

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  3. Thank you, Tony. Agree with both points. Re. the second: I find different work spaces (different tables, different rooms, different buildings – including cafes as well as office space) suit different aspects of my work.

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