Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices

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  • Journal of Environmental Psycholog




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    drawal (Oldham & Fried, 1987), satisfaction (Block &

    contrast, the more contemporary open-plan design ischaracterized by an absence of oor-to-ceiling walls and

    research. Its popularity as a workplace design has

    1.1. The impact of the open-plan office design on

    employee behavior and attitudes

    ARTICLE IN PRESSProponents of the open-plan ofce suggest that theopen plan creates exible space, allowing for a reduction

    0272-4944/$ - see front matter r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


    Corresponding author. Tel.: +612 9385 3017.E-mail address: (C. von Hippel).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 environment

    that contributes to such employee behavior is the layoutof ofce space. Conventional workplace designs tend toprovide closed, private ofces for employees. In

    increased 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 ofce design and employeesreactions to this working environment.1. Introduction

    Research has consistently demonstrated that charac-teristics of the ofce environment can have a signicanteffect 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-

    internal boundaries, as illustrated by cubicles or parti-tioned workspaces (Zalesny & Farace, 1987). Both openand closed ofces 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 ofcedesign in particular has received attention in currentIndividual differences in emplo

    Alena Maher, Co

    School of Psychology, University of New

    Available onli


    This study examined the independent and joint inuences o

    complexity on the satisfaction and performance of employees w

    two organizations completed questionnaires and inhibitory abi

    Results partially conrmed hypotheses that satisfaction and

    screening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy, or

    produce employees negative reactions were also partially con

    determinant of employees reactions to the open-plan work

    behavioral responses to the workplace, limitations of the study

    r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.y 25 (2005) 219229

    reactions to open-plan ofces

    ney von Hippel

    h Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia

    August 2005

    ulus screening, inhibitory ability, perceived privacy and task

    g in open-plan ofces. One hundred and nine participants from

    easures. Performance was assessed through manager ratings.

    rmance would be reduced for employees with poor stimulus

    plex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact to

    . Importantly, results verify stimulus screening as a signicant

    . Implications for understanding employees attitudinal and

    implications for future research are discussed.

  • ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironin 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 ofce 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 ofces have led to increased commu-nication among coworkers (Allen & Gerstberger, 1973;Hundert & Greeneld, 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 the

    purported benets of the open-plan design are accom-panied by important costs as well. For example, open-plan ofces 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 & Greeneld, 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 & Greeneld, 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 ef-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 bebenets 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 ndings regarding the inuence of open-plan ofce designs have brought researchers to considerwhich characteristics of the design specically 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;

    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of E220Hundert & Greeneld, 1969; Oldham & Rotchford,1983; Sundstrom et al., 1980). The open-plan ofce hasexposed workspaces (few walls or partitions) and placesemployees in close proximity to coworkers. Conse-quently, employees nd it difcult to avoid interpersonalcontact or maintain privacy. Different frameworks havebeen adopted by researchers to explain this negativeimpact of crowding or excessive social interaction inofce designs. Of these approaches, overstimulationtheory (e.g. Oldham, 1988) provides a particularly usefulbasis for understanding the impact of crowded ofcespace. 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 ofce. 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 dissatised 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 inuence, research-ers have also considered whether individual differencesmay also contribute to the variation in the impact of thedesign. Empirical evidence conrms 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 ofce 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 are

    less affected by crowding and spatial density thannonscreeners (Baum, Calesnick, Davis, & Gatchel,1982; Mehrabian, 1977; Oldham, 1988). Additionally,

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229the evidence suggests that screeners appear to effectively

  • ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironreduce 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, whichidenties 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 inhibit

    information differs between various types of individuals.For example, individuals with schizophrenia, attentiondecit 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 inhibitory

    ability 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,

    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Eincluding reading ability and creativity. Because theability to inhibit irrelevant information lessens thelikelihood of one becoming overstimulated in highlydistracting situations (Dempster, 1991), it is feasible thatinhibitory ability inuences 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 signicant determinant of

    an 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 ofce, 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 ofces(Desor, 1972; Paulus, 1980). As a result, negativeattitudinal and behavioral reactions of employees inopen-plan ofces may be moderated by their inhibitoryability.This hypothesis, however, does not specify the precise

    relationship between stimulus screening and inhibitoryability. It may be that inhibitory ability serves as amediator between stimulus screening and employeesreactions to the open plan ofces. 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 inuencefrom stimulus screening in predicting employees reac-tions to open plan ofces. 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 ofce, 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).

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 221Indeed, task complexities have been shown to inuence

  • ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironhow employees perform in and react to workspaces ofvarious designs (Block & Stokes, 1989; Brookes &Kaplan, 1972; Hackman & Oldham, 1975; Hed...


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