Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Office economies can have costly results

Edited by Jill Wright,

Not wanting to labour the point, I decided that I'd had enough to say on the topic with my two posts last week on the way management and building designers seem to ignore the downside of hot desking and open-plan offices

The psychology of office accommodation is one of the topics that the team of occupational psychologists and management coaches at Psychology Melbourne constantly explore as they examine issues like morale and workplace productivity.

But then along came some interesting research quoted in the British Psychological Association's Research Digest blog, which underlines my contention that the enthusiasts who cite the so-called benefits of enhanced communications among workers to support what in reality is a simplistic economic decision, are defying the evidence and for that matter, common sense.

The research comes from the University of Sydney architecture and design faculty's IEQ Lab, where Professor Richard de Dear and PhD candidate Jungsoo Kim  analysed a survey of more than 42,000 US office workers in 303 office buildings, two thirds of them housed in open-plan offices (with or without partial partitions); a quarter in private offices and a small fraction sharing a single room with co-workers.

They focused on responses to the industry standard "Post-occupancy Evaluation" in which workers rate their satisfaction with elements of the office environment, including temperature, lighting, privacy and ease of interaction, and their overall satisfaction with their personal workspace. 

It ought to surprise no-one that workers in private offices were the most satisfied. Workers in open-plan offices expressed strong dissatisfaction with privacy and noise, and particularly in cases where they had partitions - possibly because visual screens make ambient noise harder to predict and avoid.

In one of my posts, I quoted some of the extensive research undertaken in Australia and later at the University of Wolverhampton by Jane Carstairs (who has since moved into a Midlands consultancy. Her studies support the implications of this most recent research, that job satisfaction and the amount of work completed by people who are moved to open plan offices, measurably declined, and that decline endured.

According to the University of Sydney research authors, "Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants' overall work environmental satisfaction."

The apparent determination of management and office designers to overlook the evidence contributes to the fact that an estimated 80 per cent of social business projects fail to achieve the expected results, and of course lead to things like poor morale and costly problems of staff retention.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.