21 April 2015


'Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices' by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear in (2013) 36 Journal of Environmental Psychology 18–26 argues
 Open-plan office layout is commonly assumed to facilitate communication and interaction between co-workers, promoting workplace satisfaction and team-work effectiveness. On the other hand, open-plan layouts are widely acknowledged to be more disruptive due to uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy. Based on the occupant survey database from Center for the Built Environment (CBE), empirical analyses indicated that occupants assessed Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) issues in different ways depending on the spatial configuration (classified by the degree of enclosure) of their workspace. Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ, particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.
The authors note
There exists a large body of literature looking at how physical environment influence occupants' perception and behaviour in office buildings. As office layout has transitioned in recent decades from conventional private (or cellular) spatial configuration to modern open-plan, the impacts on occupants and organisations have been extensively studied from a variety of perspectives in disciplines as diverse as architecture, engineering, health and psychology.
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 and 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 and Smith, 2005 and Kupritz, 2003). However there is not much empirical evidence to support these widespread beliefs (Kaarlela-Tuomaala et al., 2009 and Smith-Jackson and Klein, 2009). On the contrary, a plethora of research papers identify negative impacts of open-plan office layout on occupants' perception of their office environment. For example, some longitudinal survey results have demonstrated a significant decline in workspace satisfaction (Sundstrom, Herbert, & Brown, 1982), increased distraction and loss of privacy (Kaarlela-Tuomaala et al., 2009), and perceived performance decrement (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline, 2002) after relocation of employees from enclosed workplace to open-plan or less-enclosed workplace. Moreover, the occupants in these studies didn't adapt or habituate to the change in spatial layout (Brand and Smith, 2005, Brennan et al., 2002 and Virjonen et al., 2007), and many researcher draw the causal link between declining environmental satisfaction and deteriorating job satisfaction and productivity (Sundstrom et al., 1994, Veitch et al., 2007 and Wineman, 1982). Still other research studies attribute escalating Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms such as distress, irritation, fatigue, headache and concentration difficulties (Klitzman and Stellman, 1989, Pejtersen et al., 2006 and Witterseh et al., 2004) to open-plan office layout.
An extensive research literature consistently identifies noise and lack of privacy as the key sources of dissatisfaction in open-plan office layouts (Danielsson and Bodin, 2009, de Croon et al., 2005 and Hedge, 1982). Firstly, studies based on either occupant surveys and laboratory experiment report that noise, in particular irrelevant but audible and intelligible speech from co-workers, disturbs and negatively affects individual performance on tasks requiring cognitive processing (Banbury and Berry, 2005, Haka et al., 2009, Smith-Jackson and Klein, 2009 and Virjonen et al., 2007). The loss of productivity due to noise distraction estimated by self-rated waste of working time was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices, and the tasks requiring complex verbal process were more likely to be disturbed than relatively simple or routine tasks (Haapakangas, Helenius, Keekinen, & Hongisto, 2008). Also, Evans and Johnson (2000) argue that exposure to uncontrollable noise can be associated with fall in task motivation. Secondly, with a reduced degree of personal enclosure, open-plan layout often fails to isolate the occupants from unwanted sound (i.e. sound privacy) and unwanted observation (i.e. visual privacy), resulting in the overall feeling of loss of privacy and personal control over their workspace (Brand and Smith, 2005, Brill et al., 1985, Danielsson and Bodin, 2009 and O'Neill and Carayon, 1993). Consequently, occupants experience excessive uncontrolled social contact and interruptions due to close proximity to others and perceived loss of privacy, known as overstimulation, which leads to occupants' overall negative reactions toward their office environment (Maher and von Hippel, 2005 and Oldham, 1988).
Although that the absence of interior walls in open-plan office layout purportedly improves communication within teams and, in turn, enhances employee satisfaction, the presumption of improved workplace satisfaction is yet to be verified. Indeed, the disadvantages of open-plan offices dominate previous research outcomes. To date there has been no attempt at quantifying pros and cons of the open-plan office layout. Hedge (1982) opined that the improved social climate within open-planed offices was insufficient to offset the occupants' negative reactions to this spatial workplace configuration, but attached no empirical evidence to support this argument. Thus the primary objective of this paper is to weigh up the positive impact of the purported advantages of open-plan office (i.e. interaction between colleagues) against the negative impact of the disadvantages (i.e. noise and privacy) in relation to occupants' overall satisfaction with their workspace. This study also explores how occupants' attitude toward indoor environment changes between different office layouts categorized depending on the degree of personal enclosure. For example, an occupant located in a spacious private office would have different expectations or priority for Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) compared to an occupant located in a dense, open-plan office.
To summarise, the research questions addressed in this paper are:
(1) Does occupant satisfaction with various IEQ factors change depending on different office layouts?
(2) Does the priority of various IEQ factors (i.e. relative importance for shaping occupants' overall workspace satisfaction) differ between occupant groups in different office layouts?
(3) Do the benefits such as easiness of interaction between co-workers offset the disadvantages such as distraction by noise and loss of privacy in the open-plan office layout?