OHS Canada Magazine

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Falling Partitions: Plus or Minus

Within a couple months of relocating to an open-concept office space last October, Michael De Monte had noticed significant changes in the social dynamics among employees.


Within a couple months of relocating to an open-concept office space last October, Michael De Monte had noticed significant changes in the social dynamics among employees.

“The sales team and the development team were so separate in the old space there wasn’t a lot of interaction, but now I think there’s a lot more helping out of each other,” reports De Monte, founder and CEO of Toronto-based ScribbleLive, a live content management system for media and news organizations. “There’s a lot going on, but it’s good energy.” 

The fall of workplace partitions has emerged as a trend over the last five to 10 years, says Steven Cascone, vice-president of Mayhew, a work space design firm in Toronto.

More firms are opting to lower the divides to seating level, Cascone says. High-panelled cubicles encourage “head’s-down work,” while lower panels offer greater natural light, better indoor air quality and “more of a connection with your peers,” he reports.

But is there any downside to upping integration? Can all this togetherness be disruptive, even stressful?

Findings published four years ago in the Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management show that open-concept work environments have positives and negatives.

Vinesh Oommen, then a senior project officer at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, carried out a literature review of related research. To the good, there was enhanced communication, cost-effectiveness and equal work space for all; to the bad, there was a loss of privacy and identity, low productivity, over-stimulation and low job satisfaction.

The study also cited various health issues, including stress, fatigue, increased blood pressure, musculoskeletal problems, more eye, nose and throat irritations and a greater chance of contracting flu from co-workers seated too closely together. 

Mark Van Summern, a principal at the design firm of Perkins Eastman, based in New York City, says that for many clients, the misconception is that there must be a single layout.

“Although we see trends where, for example, an IT group within an organization may be very open-plan and embracing of flex and remote worker strategies, other departments within the same company may be much more heads-down, resident worker-focused and office-intensive,” Van Summern says. “The alignment of a workplace strategy, however, be it open-plan, traditional cubicles or private offices, is specific to the drivers of that particular business and what are the best set of tools to support the work that takes place,” he adds.

Still, the visual privacy provided by cubicle walls can help people relax and decompress, suggests Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist and principal for Design With Science in Chicago. “Open-concept work environments can work well when people are doing tasks that they have done so many times in the past,” Augustin says. “The activity around the workers keeps them from completely zoning out.”

Whatever the specific layout, there is always the potential for noise-related distraction. Augustin says that this is particularly an issue for cubicles with short walls because they create the impression of privacy. People “speak more loudly than they would if they remembered other people are nearby.”

Van Summern suggests that acoustic privacy issues can be silenced by striking a balance between public, collaborative spaces and quiet rooms or enclosed spaces.

Partition panels “do have some acoustic quality, but your acoustics is the entire space,” Cascone explains. “It’s the carpet that’s on the floor, it’s the ceiling tiles that are in the ceiling, it’s also sound masking,” some of this from unexpected sources. Consider the sound of air circulating from the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system that helps muffle the noise from a co-worker talking on the phone, he says.

shh… please

Apart from architecture, there is always plenty of room for etiquette. This means that when walls come down, a new protocol should come up.

While it may be acceptable to conduct a conference call in a cubicle, “you don’t have those types of conversations at your work stations; you go to a secondary space like a small enclave or meeting room,” Cascone advises.

Spatial design must also be a good fit with job functions, he adds. Augustin would likely agree, noting that “organizations function most effectively when their culture is consistent with the physical form of their environment.”

Although Augustin does not share the view that existing research has demonstrated open spaces increase meaningful collaboration, she does note “the design of the work space influences worker mood, and that mood influences whether thought processes are broad or narrow, which determines things such as the amount of creative thought and the way employees interact with each other.”

Van Summern says the “rapid advance of technology and open platform communications” is driving workplace design and is supporting “a much more mobile work force where the idea of a dedicated seat is becoming much more rare.”

To De Monte, his company’s new open layout has netted noticeable work benefits, although he adds that a few tweaks were needed after moving in. “Everybody’s at the same level and in a good way,” he says. 

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Ann Ruppenstein is a writer in Toronto.