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Terry Smyth
April 30, 2009

Pity the poor battery hen, but what about battery people? When Dr Vinesh Oommen, a researcher from the Queensland University of Technology, published a study confirming long-held fears that open-plan offices were a health hazard, he did not expect a worldwide reaction.

Oommen’s review of all literature on the subject found that open-plan offices, which put multiple workers together in the same space, caused high levels of stress and staff turnover, increased workplace conflicts and feelings of insecurity from lack of privacy, caused loss of concentration due to excessive noise, and increased the risk of high blood pressure and infectious diseases.

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YOUR SAY: Open-plan offices
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Oommen concluded that traditional enclosed offices promoted a healthier, happier, and thus more productive workforce, and advised employers to consider changing back.

When the study, published this year in the Asia-Pacific Journal Of Health Management, received international media coverage, office workers seized upon it as evidence supporting what they had long suspected, leaving Oommen wondering whether he had sparked a revival.

“I was surprised to find that people have very strong views on this – the international response more so than the Australian response,” Oommen says. “I had more requests from overseas countries, especially [Europe], all wanting to get rid of the open-plan work environment.

“From Canada to China, people from all over the world wanted evidence to change the way their organisation was heading. One of the major banks in Switzerland sent me an email saying they wanted to use this article to redesign their workplace.

“And in Australia, the CSIRO [Staff Association], which for years has been fighting against the open work environment, used the report as part of their enterprise bargaining, to make sure people don’t get open-plan environments in the future.”

While critics of the research claim it ignores outside factors that can contribute to work stress, such as social pressures and personal problems, Oommen stands by his findings. “What we did was a systematic review, which is one of the strongest forms of evidence,” he says.

“All the studies we reviewed had the same conclusion – that the open-plan work environment is one of the worst environments in which you can put an employee.

“The only advantages of working in such an environment is that you can give people the opportunity to communicate better. It can be a much friendlier environment.”

However, the cons far outweigh the pros, according to the study which says that workers who move from a private workspace to an open-plan office often report difficulty concentrating because of increased interruptions, diversions and noise from photocopiers, phone conversations, air-conditioning, lift doors, employee chat and people moving around.

The study finds such interruptions can lead to accidents as employees become irritated and are unable to concentrate. A lack of privacy also contributes to stress, with many feeling their work and conversations are always being monitored because they are forced to conduct their business in a public area.

Many experience feelings of a loss of control and become worried that their private conversations are being overheard, while they also become unwillingly privy to others’ private conversations, possibly leading to stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, and aggravated relationships with co-workers. The study also finds those in open-plan offices are more prone to eye, nose and throat irritations and to contracting the flu.

The physical setting in which people work is equally as important as the nature of their work, the study stresses. It says the more comfortable a worker is with their environment, the better their work tends to be. This is an important factor in employee satisfaction which is itself vital to an organisation’s success as it affects job perception, attitudes, and staff turnover and its associated costs.

The study also finds that almost all highly skilled jobs need concentration and privacy in order to be done well.

The now ubiquitous open-plan office took decades to evolve as various working methods went in and out of fashion, beginning with the typing pool – the early 20th-century version of the Roman galley.

The typical typing pool was a large space in which squadrons of white-collar workers spent their working hours at desks in regimented rows, beavering away amid the deafening clank of manual typewriters and the monotonous cranking of adding machines, all under the beady eye of a supervisor. All that was missing was the drum and the whip.

Gradually, the open space was divided into enclosed offices, often sized and furnished according to rank, and invariably personalised by workers. The principle behind it was that privacy promoted productivity. By the 1960s, however, the clock was turning back, with open-plan offices fast replacing enclosed offices.

Employers were increasingly enthused by claims that the open-plan design improved workflow, made communication between colleagues easier and eliminated status issues, encouraged efficient sharing of resources, promoted team-building and, most importantly, was cheaper – at least 20 per cent cheaper.

Most employees, though, lamented the loss of their very own private, secure space, however dark, airless or pokey.

The years since have brought variations on the open theme. The freestanding desks of early open-plan design have given way to interlocking, modular workstations that can be readily reconfigured and are significantly cheaper.

Marked pathways through workspaces have been replaced by grid designs, which allow more workers to be housed in a given space and are, accordingly, far cheaper.

A compromise between open and enclosed designs gave us the cubicle – some with high screens workers cannot see over, others with screens just low enough to allow workers to keep a lookout for predators in the manner of meerkats.

Individual cubicles have morphed into screened clusters of workstations officially known as “pods” but unofficially decried as “cube farms”.

Less popular still is “hot-desking” , whereby several workers share the same workstation. So individualise your desk with say, family photos, if you must, but make sure you take them home again at the end of your shift. Hot-desking can cut costs by up to 30 per cent through space saving, but employees often complain that they find it dehumanising.

Today, even though Dr Oommen’s research confirmed that the vast majority of workers preferred enclosed offices, most commercial offices are open plan.

But Tom Wright, a Sydney architect and an expert in office design, says the days of the off-the-shelf office plan may be numbered.

“There has been some movement back to more defined, enclosed spaces,” Wright says.

He agrees that the cost savings of open plan are a disincentive to change. “Obviously, a basic meat-and-potatoes office fit-out will tend towards open plan,” he says. “Certainly, places like call centres and those sort of organisations tend towards open plan.

“However, these days there’s a greater recognition that organisations all have their own internal cultures, which dictate to a great extent the degree of openness or enclosure. Whereas, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the trend was to break down the barriers, to open up the office. I think that went too far, and now we’re coming back to recognising that all organisations have their own specific requirements.

“In traditional legal and accountancy firms you’ll have offices because of confidentiality issues, whereas in other organisations it’s important that people around can hear what’s going on and see how things are done. As an architect, I know that for architectural offices, open plan is incredibly important because that’s how you train people on your team.”

In those sorts of offices, he says, a lot of senior people end up on workstations that have the same status as the 25-year-old who has just joined the firm.

“There’s a great sense of loss after having your own private domain, but if you want to continue moving up the food chain you’ll go along with that cultural change,” he says.

Wright believes the negatives of the high-density office can be offset by “breakout spaces” such as lounges and cafes.

Another change in attitude by management towards office design is recognising that a lot of valuable work doesn’t actually happen at the workstation. It happens in the corridors and break-out spaces such as the cafe, he says. “As long as you provide facilities that counter increased densities, it does make for a happy office,” Wright says.

And for employers determined to stick with open plan simply because it’s cheaper, Ooommen adds a note of caution: “You should understand that because as an employer you have an obligation under the law to provide a safe environment for your employees, if your employees continue to work in an open-plan environment you could have a lot of court cases in the future.”

Oomen suspects fear of litigation could well be the most powerful incentive for change.

PROS
* Improves colleague communication

* Increases workflow

* Eliminates markers of rank and occupation

* Allows flexibility of office layout

* Encourages teamwork, sharing and learning by observation

* Savings of 20 per cent or more on office fit-out costs

* Creates communal work culture

* Allows more employees to be housed in a given space, reducing real estate costs

* Reduces energy use and cost

CONS
* Stress and insecurity from lack of privacy

* Constant distractions from nearby conversations and other noise

* Feelings of dehumanisation in smaller workstations with ill-defined boundaries

* Increased conflict between workers in shared workspaces

* Low job satisfaction, leading to higher absenteeism and staff turnover

* Stress contributing to high blood pressure

* Increased risk of colds, flu

* Low productivity and poor job satisfaction from all of the above

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/openplan-offices-sickening-unproductive-20090430-anl0.html?page=-1

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