Open plan offices are all the rage at the moment, favoured for their relatively low cost and inherent promotion of collaborative working. There are however some downsides, such as a lack of privacy and high levels of noise, and now there may be another negative to add to the list as a new report published in the New Zealand Medical Journal by the University of Canterbury has found that such office layouts may in fact be contributing to the spread of illness amongst the workforce.

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In compiling the report the research team conducted a literature review of 15 previous studies into open plan offices, and ultimately found that those working in such large open spaces were more likely to get sick more frequently and as a result perform less efficiently.

“The findings discovered that what people are told about [open plan] offices is that they improve communication and teamwork, but there isn’t strong evidence for that,” asserts lead researcher Professor Ann Richardson of the University of Canterbury. “There was evidence that they increase sickness, absence and emotional cognitive irritation, and decrease mental work ability and productivity and job satisfaction.

“There was one paper that suggested hot-desking was even worse than open spaces where people have a designated desk,” Prof Richardson continued.

The tech giants of Silicon Valley have been major driving forces in the shift towards open-plan offices, but cost too is a factor. The researchers found that many sway towards an open layout as they are not only easier to construct, but also cheaper in the long run as the same area can accommodate a larger workforce. For example, 10-20% of a typical university’s total costs can be taken up in allocating space, and savings are often made by decreasing space provided for staff.

“Our main reason for publishing this was to alert people to the harmful effects of this office design,” states Prof Richardson. “We thought when architects design buildings, they could think economically but at the same time take these problems into account and design something that has more individual offices.

“Some of the things we read that could improve open plan offices were things like making sure there was privacy, so partitions between spaces, and ways to reduce noise, because people find noise very stressful.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor as he continues to expand his horizons.
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