A new survey claims that 90 per cent of research studies find negative effects on employees who work in an open-plan office.
Reasons cited most often are high levels of stress, conflicts, high blood pressure and high levels of staff turnover, according to the study's author, Dr. Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, in Australia.
But this gloomy verdict is way too pessimistic, counters Jacqueline Vischer, director of the interior design program at the University of Montreal, who runs studies on how to improve work environments.
The Australian study looked at exceptions rather than overall success, she says. "Like it or not, the open-office concept is here to stay and employers are finding that if done right, it can actually boost productivity and morale."
"Lighting is a big source of complaint. People working the whole day on computer screens find glare and eye fatigue an issue," says Ms. Vischer.
"To overcome that, new approaches are indirect lighting where the fixture bounces the light off the ceiling to light the room is found to reduce glare problems a lot. The trouble is that most landlords and employers don't want to make the considerable investment in replacing older direct fluorescent ceiling fixtures. An alternative is reducing the intensity of the fluorescent tubes and using task lighting on the desk."
"Noise is another big source of negative comment. Use more sound-absorbing finishes and better quality ceiling tile is a bigger investment, but it is a one time investment that has a payoff in helping make people more productive."
Steven Cascone, director of design for Toronto-based office design and consulting firm Mayhew and Associates Inc., says companies should be creative with their workspace plans.
"We caution employers that you can't just go to smaller, open workstations and not give something else in return," Mr. Cascone said.
"What they are giving instead is enclaves: round tables between cubicle pods where people can sit, enclosures where people can plug in their laptop or wireless capability in a lounge."
He notes that office spaces are often divided by space itself. "There may not be a wall around you but there is a wide aisle before you get to the next work station. You've got to maintain a balance of open space or it becomes too confining,"
Because of green initiatives, Mr. Cascone added, a lot of offices are doing what they call "daylight harvesting" to save power and shut off lights automatically when it's bright enough outside that no extra lighting is needed.
MAKING IT WORK
Here's a look at what some Canadian companies have learned about what works and what doesn't with office plans.
LoyaltyOne Inc., Toronto
The move: From suburban to urban high-rise, and from high dividers to low divider open concept in fall of 2007. Reduced work stations and offices size by 40 per cent.
Strategy: "We democratized the process based on the majority vote of employees," says Bryan Pearson, the company's CEO. Mockups of competing styles were set up so employees could try them out and vote on the favoured design. Employee surveys found that a fitness centre and a big staff cafeteria and lounge space were high priorities to be added to the design.
Lesson learned: Leveraging advice from employees makes them feel responsible for the outcome. The company estimated up to 10 per cent of employees would leave in the first year because of the commute, reduced work space and open concept. In reality, turnover was only 1 per cent, Mr. Pearson adds.
In a staff survey three months after the move, 55 per cent felt their work space had been improved and 80 per cent felt it was the same or better than had before. And 90 per cent aid it is easier to communicate with others. Only 17 per cent said they felt negatively, and the main reason cited was that they would have liked more desktop space.
Payoff: "While creating less privacy was seen as a negative, the interesting positive was the level of energy in the company went up," Mr. Pearson says.
Wunderman advertising agency, Toronto
The move: Moved from a more traditional cubicle layout to open concept in downtown high rise, two years ago.
Strategy: The design came from architecture firm HOK Canada, with input from employee representatives. Innovations included full-wall white boards in office and conference rooms, and conversation areas throughout the office. Reception desk doubles as a bar for social occasions.
Lessons learned: It's possible to cut back dramatically on file space. Wunderman went to saving as much as possible on a computer server. To keep down the paper tide, every six months bring in recycling bins and have a cleanup day and say "fill 'em up," says Susan Moore, Wunderman's chief operating officer.
Payoff: It creates a more creative environment because staff have more impromptu discussions, Ms. Moore says. "Although we didn't do a formal poll, we certainly continue to hear how well the space works for everyone ... no pun intended."
McCarthy Tétrault, Montreal
The move: From traditional individual offices in a historic building in Montreal to open concept in a modern tower in 2006. A major innovation was that corner offices became core offices. Partners who once had window and corner offices now in glass enclosed spaces in core of the building, while staff are in low cubicles closer to the windows. "Moving from a building with tiny windows we wanted to take advantage of the natural light," says Jacques Bisson, chief administrative officer.
Strategy: Employees were involved in planning starting a year before the move. Mock-ups for options in work spaces were built and all employees were asked to fill out a questionnaire for their opinions on work space and could vote between choices of colours styles and hardware and lighting; 80 per cent of the staff voted.
To reduce traffic in the work areas, the design also included a "client floor," where all meetings are held. The individual rooms can be opened up to create a conference space big enough for meetings of 300 people.
Lessons learned: "You can never over-communicate when you are doing a change that affects people so directly," Mr. Bisson says. "You need to keep the momentum going all the time. Even in the weeks before the move people we still questioning whether it was the right decision." Natural light and green technologies are selling points.
Bottom line: Six months after the move found that 95 per cent of employees were pleased with the change. Negative comments tended to be minor, such as drawers that didn't open properly, Mr. Bisson says.
BY THE NUMBERS
Amount average office work area has shrunk since 2000.
Additional amount planners believe they can shrink work space without affecting productivity.
Average portion of work stations reconfigured or moved in a typical office in a year.
Portion of office workers who spend most of their time in a work station.
Minimal square feet of office space considered acceptable for CEO or president.
Recommended size, in square feet, of a vice-president's office.
Recommended square-foot size of a manager's office.
Recommended size, in square feet, for a clerical work station.