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Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229
Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices
Alena Maher, Courtney von Hippel
School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia
Available online 15 August 2005
This study examined the independent and joint influences of stimulus screening, inhibitory ability, perceived privacy and task
complexity on the satisfaction and performance of employees working in open-plan offices. One hundred and nine participants from
two organizations completed questionnaires and inhibitory ability measures. Performance was assessed through manager ratings.
Results partially confirmed hypotheses that satisfaction and performance would be reduced for employees with poor stimulus
screening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy, or complex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact to
produce employees negative reactions were also partially confirmed. Importantly, results verify stimulus screening as a significant
determinant of employees reactions to the open-plan workplace. Implications for understanding employees attitudinal and
behavioral responses to the workplace, limitations of the study, and implications for future research are discussed.
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Research has consistently demonstrated that charac-teristics of the office environment can have a significanteffect on behavior, perceptions, and productivity ofworkers (e.g. Altman & Lett, 1969; Oldham &Rotchford, 1983; Woods & Canter, 1970). Workplacecharacteristics such as noise, lighting conditions, and theamount of space available per employee can contributeto employee turnover (Oldham & Fried, 1987; Sund-strom, Herbert, & Brown, 1982), discretionary with-drawal (Oldham & Fried, 1987), satisfaction (Block &Stokes, 1989; Oldham, 1988; Oldham & Brass, 1979;Sundstrom, Burt, & Kamp, 1980), and performance(Sundstrom et al., 1982; Wineman, 1986).
A fundamental aspect of the workplace environmentthat contributes to such employee behavior is the layoutof office space. Conventional workplace designs tend toprovide closed, private offices for employees. Incontrast, the more contemporary open-plan design ischaracterized by an absence of floor-to-ceiling walls and
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internal boundaries, as illustrated by cubicles or parti-tioned workspaces (Zalesny & Farace, 1987). Both openand closed offices have featured in studies addressing therelationship between the physical features of the work-place and employee perceptions and behavior (Becker,Gield, Gaylin, & Sayer, 1983; Block & Stokes, 1989;Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Crouch & Nimran, 1989;Hedge, 1982; Oldham, 1988; Oldham & Brass, 1979;Oldham & Fried, 1987; ONeill, 1994; Sundstrom et al.,1980, 1982; Wineman, 1986). The open-plan officedesign in particular has received attention in currentresearch. Its popularity as a workplace design hasincreased substantially (Krekhovetsky, 2003; The Econ-omist, 1998), prompting researchers to question thevalue it offers to the employee and the organization incomparison to traditional designs. The current researchexamines the open-plan office design and employeesreactions to this working environment.
1.1. The impact of the open-plan office design on
employee behavior and attitudes
Proponents of the open-plan office suggest that theopen plan creates flexible space, allowing for a reduction
ARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229220
in set-up and renovation times. It also enables theaccommodation of greater numbers of employees inreduced amounts of space (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline,2002; Zeitlin, 1969). As a result the total office spacerequired is reduced and organizations save on airconditioning, maintenance and building costs. Suppor-ters of the open-plan design also claim that the designfacilitates communication and increases interactionbetween employees, and as a result improves employeesatisfaction, morale and productivity (Bach, 1965;Brennan et al., 2002; Dean, 1977; Oldham, 1988).Indeed, some evidence exists to support these positiveeffects. Open-plan offices have led to increased commu-nication among coworkers (Allen & Gerstberger, 1973;Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Zahn, 1991), higheraesthetic judgements, and more group sociability thanmore conventional designs (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972). Itis not surprising then that many contemporary work-places have adopted this design to decrease costs andincrease employee performance.
There is research, however, indicating that thepurported benefits of the open-plan design are accom-panied by important costs as well. For example, open-plan offices have been linked to increased workplacenoise (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Sundstrom et al., 1980;Zalesny & Farace, 1987), increased disturbances anddistractions (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Clearwater,1979; Hedge, 1982; Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Old-ham & Brass, 1979; Sundstrom et al., 1980), increasedfeelings of crowding (Sundstrom et al., 1980), and loss ofprivacy (Boyce, 1974; Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Clear-water, 1979; Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Hedge, 1982;Sundstrom et al., 1980). Further, researchers haveobserved that these negative outcomes of the designtend to result in dissatisfaction with both work and theworkplace (Marans & Yan, 1989; Oldham & Brass,1979; Spreckelmeyer, 1993), reduced functional effi-ciency (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972), and decreasedperformance (Becker et al., 1983; Oldham & Brass,1979). Thus it appears that although the reduction inspace and increased communication are reputed to bebenefits of the open-plan design, this design may alsoinduce negative reactions from the individuals occupy-ing such workspaces.
1.2. The influence of space in the workplace
The contrary findings regarding the influence of open-plan office designs have brought researchers to considerwhich characteristics of the design specifically contributeto its negative versus positive effects. The evidenceresulting from such research consistently indicates that itis the inherent loss of space and increased contact withcoworkers that appear to drive the negative behavioraland attitudinal responses of employees (Desor, 1972;Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Oldham & Rotchford,
1983; Sundstrom et al., 1980). The open-plan office hasexposed workspaces (few walls or partitions) and placesemployees in close proximity to coworkers. Conse-quently, employees find it difficult to avoid interpersonalcontact or maintain privacy. Different frameworks havebeen adopted by researchers to explain this negativeimpact of crowding or excessive social interaction inoffice designs. Of these approaches, overstimulationtheory (e.g. Oldham, 1988) provides a particularly usefulbasis for understanding the impact of crowded officespace. According to this theory, the combination ofexcessive social interaction and small amounts ofpersonal space characteristic of the design exposesemployees to overstimulation (Desor, 1972; Paulus,1980). Overstimulation generally evokes a negativeresponse from individuals, both behaviorally andattitudinally, and in the workplace this likely results inemployee dissatisfaction and withdrawal (Oldham,1988; Paulus, 1980).
Empirical research supports the theory of over-stimulation as a partial explanation of the negativeeffect of the open-plan office. Employees prefer lowlevels of spatial density, high levels of privacy, and agreater amount of architectural privacy (enclosures) intheir workplace (Oldham, 1988; Oldham & Rotchford,1983; Sundstrom et al., 1980). They seek minimizationof unwanted intrusions and potential sources ofexcessive stimulation in their workspace, and accord-ingly are dissatisfied when the open-plan design does notallow for these desired working conditions (Oldham &Rotchford, 1983).
1.3. Individual differences in overstimulation
While much of the research on open-plan design hasexamined why particular characteristics of the designhave a negative rather than positive influence, research-ers have also considered whether individual differencesmay also contribute to the variation in the impact of thedesign. Empirical evidence confirms that the severity ofemployees negative reactions indeed differs from personto person (Wineman, 1986); some individuals appearbetter able than others to cope with the excessivestimulation inherent to the open-plan office environ-ment. Mehrabian (1977) proposed that such individualdifferences in coping are due to an ability he labelsstimulus screening. He distinguishes between screeners,who effectively reduce overstimulation by attending toinformation on a priority basis, and nonscreeners, whodo not (or cannot) apply this approach and tend tobecome overstimulated.
Consistent with Mehrabians hypothesis, screeners areless affected by crowding and spatial density thannonscreeners (Baum, Calesnick, Davis, & Gatchel,1982; Mehrabian, 1977; Oldham, 1988). Additionally,the evidence suggests that screeners appear to effectively
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reduce the stress of numerous stimuli whereas non-screeners tend to become overaroused by the samestimuli and as a result report more negative attitudinalresponses toward the environment (Mehrabian, 1977;Oldham, Kulik, & Stepina, 1991).
1.4. The role of inhibitory ability
Evidence in support of Mehrabians (1977) concept ofscreening ability highlights a crucial factor in effectiveworkplace performance: the ability to effectively blockexcessive stimulation to concentrate on the relevantinformation at hand. The processes underlying theselective attention required for such concentration havebeen the focus of substantial cognitive research, whichidentifies inhibition of distractions as playing a crucialrole in selective attention (Dempster, 1991). Selectiveattention appears to involve two opposite but comple-mentary mechanisms: attention and inhibition (Dagen-bach & Carr, 1994; Hasher & Zacks, 1988; Marcel, 1983;Tipper, 1985, 1992). To pay attention to a particularstimulus within a dynamic environment an individualmust attend to relevant information and inhibit orsuppress irrelevant information that is also present.Effective inhibition allows the individual to avoidsimultaneous processing of many competing stimuli.Inhibition is crucial to the individuals capacity toconcentrate in a distracting environment as it reducesthe likelihood that overstimulation will occur and thusallows the individual to effectively process the situation(Dempster, 1991).
Like most cognitive skills, the ability to inhibitinformation differs between various types of individuals.For example, individuals with schizophrenia, attentiondeficit disorder, obsessive behavior and individuals highin cognitive failures have demonstrated reduced cogni-tive inhibition (Beech, Powell, McWilliams, & Claridge,1989; Tipper, 1992). Similarly, older adults displaypoorer inhibitory ability than younger adults (Connelly,Hasher, & Zacks, 1991; Hartman & Hasher, 1991;Hasher, Stoltzfus, Zacks, & Rypma, 1991; Tipper, 1991)and are more susceptible to distraction (Hasher &Zacks, 1988).
Aside from these group differences in inhibitoryability there is considerable evidence to suggest thatthere are individual differences in the inhibitory abilityof normal adults (Conway, Cowan, & Bunting, 2001;Hasher & Zacks, 1988; Rosen & Engle, 1997). Forexample, normal adults show reliable and stabledifferences in their ability on selective attention tasks(e.g. the Stroop test) due to variations in the ability toinhibit distractions (Tipper & Baylis, 1987). Harnishfe-ger and Bjorklund (1994) also propose that individualdifferences in inhibition are associated with differencesin performance in a wide range of tasks and abilities,including reading ability and creativity. Because the
ability to inhibit irrelevant information lessens thelikelihood of one becoming overstimulated in highlydistracting situations (Dempster, 1991), it is feasible thatinhibitory ability influences an individuals ability tocope in such an environment. This research examines thepossibility that inhibitory ability may be the cognitivemechanism through which stimulus screening exerts itsimpact. Thus, whereas stimulus screening representsindividuals self-report of how well they cope in astimulating environment, inhibitory ability may repre-sent the underlying cognitive ability that allows indivi-duals to effectively screen out distractions inherent in astimulating environment.
According to this logic, a significant determinant ofan employees reaction to and performance in theworkplace may be the ability to screen out or inhibitdistracting or irrelevant information. This is particularlytrue of an open-plan office, in which distractions andoverstimulation are intrinsically linked to the design.Individuals with poor inhibitory ability are less capableof suppressing distractions (Connelly et al., 1991) andthus are more likely to be disrupted by the over-stimulation commonly experienced in open-plan offices(Desor, 1972; Paulus, 1980). As a result, negativeattitudinal and behavioral reactions of employees inopen-plan offices may be moderated by their inhibitoryability.
This hypothesis, however, does not specify the preciserelationship between stimulus screening and inhibitoryability. It may be that inhibitory ability serves as amediator between stimulus screening and employeesreactions to the open plan offices. In such a manner,inhibitory ability may be the cognitive mechanism thatdifferentiates a good screener from a poor screener.Alternatively, inhibitory ability may enable people toengage in stimulus screening, but their self-report ofstimulus screening may be primarily driven by affect orarousal rather than cognitive responses to overstimulat-ing environments. According to this latter possibility,inhibitory ability may exert an independent influencefrom stimulus screening in predicting employees reac-tions to open plan offices. These competing relationshipsbetween inhibitory ability and stimulus screening will beexplored in this paper.
1.5. The role of task complexity in the open-office design
The workplace design and an individuals stimulusscreening appear to be capable of affecting workperformance in an open-plan office, but the extent towhich either effects employee behaviors and attitudesmay depend on precisely what each employee doeswithin the workplace. Different tasks require differentlevels of attention and thus different levels of concen-tration for their completion (Oldham & Fried, 1987).Indeed, task complexities have been shown to influence
ARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / J...