Make You Sick?
By Bruce H. Wolfgram, SIOR
Any company that has considered either reconfiguring or moving its office over the past several years has undoubtedly faced
a number of questions. Should we go “open concept” and scrap
enclosed offices? Should we shrink or “tight-size” our employees’
offices or cubicles? Should we lower cubicle walls or eliminate
them altogether? Should we implement “tele-working” (working
from home) or “hotelling” (where staff no longer have their own
office but instead reserve a generic workstation ahead of time if
they wish to come into the office that day)?
Proponents of these initiatives (often supported by furniture
manufacturers) will proclaim that it’s not about the cost savings
but rather staff’s increased productivity and heightened morale
since employees become more empowered and team more effectively with their coworkers.
Not so fast.
A 2008 report in the Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management
concluded that open plan environments have resulted in many
problems, including the loss of privacy and identity, health issues,
social overstimulation, and low job satisfaction.
“People who are seated closely together in an open plan work
" Researchers are beginning to see
environment may suffer from physiological or psychological
reactions such as stress, fatigue, and increased blood pressure
levels,” reported Dr. Vinesh Oommen, a senior project officer for
Queensland University of Technology. Workplace experts have
even come up with a term to describe this new phenomenon:
It’s fair to state that for some companies, shrinking an employ-
ee’s workspace or eliminating it altogether may be acceptable,
especially for consulting companies, where staff spend much of
increasing employee detachment
in some companies who have cut
their office sizes in half..."
their time outside their own offices. However, even then, companies need to be cognizant that the staff is still human—we all
require some amount of attachment and a feeling of belonging
in our professional, as well as our personal lives. Researchers
are beginning to see increasing employee detachment in some
companies who have cut their office sizes in half or have implemented tele-working and mandatory hotelling. Also, shrinking
workplaces have, by definition, reduced the area available to an
employee to personalize their space. In many such workplaces,
personal objects such as potted plants and family photos have
been banished. Employees traditionally regard their workspace
as a home away from home—a retreat—a space that symbolizes
their status and marks their territory. To date, there have been
very few studies done on the human resource consequences of
Common gripes of an open plan worker include: incessant
noise from nearby conversations or phones, unpleasant odors
from others’ meals and snacks (and sometimes from the ‘
others’ themselves), overstimulation with too much going on, lack
of personal space for coats, bags and other possessions, lack of
privacy and a feeling of being watched.