Organization and leadership

What research is saying about the open office

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What is an open office? Brennan, Chugh and Kline (2002) have defined five categories of office: private closed, private shared, individual open, split open and the bullpen (desks arranged in neat rows). Open plan offices would normally fall under the category of ”split open” meaning open space without rigid walls between employees’ desks places.

There is seemingly a paradox in scientific studies about open offices. A large and increasing proportion of the working population is in open office solutions, where improved communication is one of the main arguments of its proponents (Bennan, Chugh, and Kline 2002; Lagergren, 2012; Westerlund, nd; Rissler & Elgerot, 1980). At the same time, few scientific studies have communication as a focus area, or are produced by communication scholars. A cursory check of scientific, peer reviewed papers in Lund University’s database on topic words ”office”, ”open office” and ”open office communication”, shows studies with perspectives primarily from the areas: environmental, ergonomics and design, health and stress, psychology, and Business Administration (Lund University Libraries, 2013). In Sweden, for example, recent studies of offices performed as interdisciplinary study of environmental science and architecture (Danielsson Bodin & Danielsson, 2008; Danielsson Bodin, Bodin & Rönn 2008) and out of the Stress Research Institute (Lagergren, 2012) and the Centre for Health Equity Studies (Larsson, 2010) at Stockholm University.

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The research on the open office landscape and its implications for communication and productivity, show mixed results. On one hand, there are signs of increased communication between workers and managers (Zahn, 1991), but on the other hand report reduced performance, and increased noise and distractions (Hedge, 1982; Sundstrom, Town, Rice, Osborn & Brill, 1994). However, there are two difficulties for today’s communications researchers with these latter studies, namely those carried out before the Internet made its big entrance into both work and private life, which may have opened up for a more rapid and mobile work environment with changing behaviors, as well as a reorganization from private rooms to open offices, which in itself can create anxiety and behavioral change and sound.

Brennan, Chugh and Kline’s 2002 study, however, looked at the longer term after a reorganization, but still showed after six months a negative result in terms of employee satisfaction with open plan offices, and increased experience of interference and noise. A recent study on personal communication (face-to-face) is made by Stryker and Santoro (2012), through a management – and business perspective, which argues that the different results of scientific studies are due to other factors that have played crucial role. Firstly, they pointed out where an employee is placed and how traffic looks there, if people move around the spot, for example, because it is close to a walking path, increasing the personal communication with employees. Secondly, the researchers point to the higher amount of people in the immediate area and the number of informal meeting places, affecting the personal communication positive.

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