Downsides of open-plan

Bad for your health?

Open-plan offices are bad for health, productivity and personal interactions.

Those are the results from two recently published research projects, both of which set out to prove or disprove some of the negative connotations around open-plan work spaces.

A literature review, headed by Professor Ann Richardson from the University of Canterbury School of Health Sciences, found such a strong link between open-plan work environments and adverse health effects that her report spoke of “public health implications” for the New Zealand workforce as a whole.

The other research, conducted by Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban from Harvard University Business School, established that colleague-to-colleague interactions decline markedly when workers move from individual offices to open-plan ones.

The University of Canterbury review, set up to look for health impacts of any sort associated with either open-plan or traditional work environments, found consistent links between shared office space and increased sick leave, deterioration in perceived health, and reduced productivity.

The research paper, published in the NZ Medical Journal in December, detailed the results of 15 international studies, conducted between 2000 and 2017.

“The introduction of shared or open-plan office space is remarkably consistent in its consequences, with every study reporting deleterious effects on employees’ health,” it said.

It is not clear whether this is caused by easier transmission of infectious agents, the psychosocial impact of a more public work environment, or both, but the report describes the level of consistency as “impressive”, and goes on to caution that the financial benefits of open-plan workspaces should be balanced against these negative consequences.

“When the decision to introduce open-plan work environments is made, it should be acknowledged that this is a cost-based decision rather than an initiative to improve working conditions or productivity,” the report says. “Employers and managers should be honest about this and should not claim that there will be benefits to workers ... because little evidence of such benefits exists.”

The Harvard report, published by the Royal Society earlier this month, draws a similar conclusion based on its use of electronic sensors to objectively assess personal interactions between workers at two large organisations before and after they shifted to open-plan premises.

“Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approximately 70%) in both cases,” the report says. “In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from office mates.”

Although previous studies have reached similar conclusions based on reported behaviour, this is the first study to have used personal sensors to provide objective data.  Source: Alert24 NZ


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