Not only the way work is done but the environment it is completed in influences the outcome of your ergonomics program. Today we are sharing some need-to-know information about one specific type of trendy office set-up – the open concept office.
Open concept office spaces are the biggest trend in the office environment today. What do I mean by open concept offices? Well.. just picture Google. With this set-up, there are no assigned workstations, instead desks are shared, desk sharing and hot desks are all common occurrences. Heck, you might even find foosball tables and beer fridges. In fact, we wrote an article on how to economically introduce sit-stand desks via hot desks. We even have a Cheat Sheet to help you along with the process.
From a cost-effective perspective, open concept offices draw attention as they optimize open spaces that potentially can reduce rent and operating costs, while theoretically responding to demands and opportunities of knowledge-based office work because they provide work environments for both concentrated work and collaboration. A big theme with open concept offices is that there is a delicate balancing act between employee privacy for focussed work and the opportunity to communicate and interact with colleagues. Herein lies the controversy that surrounds open concept offices. More on this in our 5 Take-Aways below.
5 Open Office Take-Aways You Need To Know
Few empirical studies are available and their findings tend to be contradictory.
Probably the most important aspect of the research is that there is a lack of firm evidence to support the use of open concept layouts. Interestingly, from a personal and psychological POV the underlying mechanisms that might explain why and how open concept features predict employees’ well-being, attitudes, and behaviour are also unclear. Makes it an easy decision right? Probably just the opposite. What I think is the most fascinating aspect in the research is that collaboration, which is fundamental to the open concept strategy and one of the main reasons why an organization would even attempt to implement this in the first place has (believe or not) unclear results too.
Employees with this concept of design reported low levels of productivity, health, and satisfaction.
This may not come as a shock for some of you if you have ever been in an open concept office before. They can be loud. So loud and noisy at times that it can actually distract from work. Increased frequency of uncontrolled interactions, increased noise, loss of privacy are outcomes of the open concept office and can lead to reduced employee efficiency. Research has even found a link between open concept offices and significantly more days of sickness absence. As a method to control this, some start-ups have been known to give their employee’s noise cancelling headphones, but who really wants to wear headphones all day?
A longitudinal pre-post design study found that open concepts had no or limited effects on fatigue and productivity in the short term but some positive effects on workers’ general health in the long-term.
Is this a trade-off that you are willing to undertake?
With no assigned workstations, employees have limited abilities to demonstrate psychological ownership within the office.
Ownership includes mementos, decor, or even pictures of family or friends at each employee’s workstation as a way to make work feel a little more personal. Having no assigned workstations has been shown to negatively affect well-being and job satisfaction at the individual level. Heck, some organizations may even strictly forbid employees from doing such things. At the team level research has shown that low levels of territoriality may negatively affect team identification, information sharing, and trust within teams. This may result in low team satisfaction and performance.
Employees need to learn to switch their workstations whenever needed.
Initial studies of employees’ choice of workstations revealed that they do not switch their workstations as often as necessary to match task requirements. Instead, employees’ choice of workstations is often determined by personal preferences (e.g., siting close to a friend) instead of task requirements (e.g., sitting in a communication zone although the employee needs to concentrate). If open-concept offices are used in this manner, they seem to provide no advantages. What can we do about this? There is a solution. Managers need to understand and pay attention to the reasons for employees’ choice behaviours; it is essential to train employees how to choose the appropriate workstations for a specific task.
The Lesson? Training is critical for success. One of the most important issues seems to be that employees need to learn to switch their workstations whenever needed.
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Wohlers, C. & Hertel, G. (2016). Choosing Where to Work at Work – Towards a Theoretical Model of Benefits and Risks of Activity-based Flexible Offices. Ergonomics, DOI: 10.1080/00140139.2016.1188220