February 26, 2014
Despite growing in popularity, open office layouts may not be all that they are cracked up to be. A growing body of research has highlighted the negative effects of open offices and a recent study gives us yet another reason to not like them -- they could be making employees sick.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, researchers from Stockholm University studied 1,852 workers in seven different office layouts. The layouts varied from private offices, spaces housing two or three employees, and open offices with more than 24 employees to "flex-offices" where employees were not assigned to specific workstations.
Employees were asked to report how often they took short and long sick leave in the past year. Short sick leave was defined as a week or less, while long sick leave was more than a week. The researchers found that those in small, medium and large open office layouts reported taking more short sick leave than those who had private offices. Workers with 4 to 9 people per room and workers in open offices with 24 people or more were most likely to take a few days off from work.
The researchers hypothesized that open offices were detrimental to people's health for two possible reasons: open offices can increase the spread of germs and bacteria or increased environmental stressors such as noise and other disruptions.
The New Yorker pointed out that about 70 percent of all offices now have open floor layouts. The open office was first conceived in the 1950s by a team from Hamburg, Germany. The idea was that the open layout helped facilitate communication and the flow of creativity. A growing body of research, however, suggests that open offices actually do more harm than good. For example, two different studies -- one in 1997 and the other in 2011 -- found that employees in open offices experienced more stress due to uncontrolled interactions and decreased productivity, concentration and motivation. This was particularly true for more senior employees, who are likely to experience more uncontrolled interactions in open floor layouts.
Another study conducted in 2005 found that when employees did not have the ability to change the way things looked, adjust lighting and temperature or choose how to conduct meetings, morale and performance also suffered.
"Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness," wrote The New Yorker.
Increased environmental noise, such as distant conversations or laughter, can also be problematic. A Cornell University study found that clerical workers who were exposed to open office noise for three hours had increased levels of adrenaline, the hormone associated with the body's fight-or-flight response. The study also found that workers in noisy open offices made fewer ergonomic adjustments, which caused increased physical strain. Even younger workers, who are accustomed to multitasking and value the socializing aspect of open offices, were stressed by office noise, according to a separate 2012 study.
"Regardless of age, when we're exposed to too many inputs at once -- a computer screen, music, a colleague's conversation, the ping of an instant message -- our senses become overloaded, and it requires more work to achieve a given result," wrote The New Yorker.
While there might not be a solution for noise and interruptions, The Wall Street Journal noted that some furniture companies are trying to keep open office workers healthy by designing furniture that kills certain bacteria. Anti-germ furniture is still in development, however, so until then, employees should make sure to wash their hands.
Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin
"Office design's impact on sick leave rates," tandfonline.com, January 27, 2014, Christina Bodin Danielsson, Holendro Singh Chungkham, Corenella Wulff, Hugo Westerlund, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00140139.2013.871064#.Uw41z3nizR1
"Study: Open Offices Are Making Us All Sick," blogs.wsj.com, February 25, 2014, Rachel Feintzeig, http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2014/02/25/study-open-offices-are-making-us-all-sick/
"The Open-Office Trap," newyorker.com, January 7, 2014, Maria Konnikova, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/01/the-open-office-trap.html