The open plan office sucks–it’s also good for you

Here’s the indirect way your open plan office may be making you healthier.

[Source Image: ZernLiew/iStock]

You may hate your open plan office. It may negatively affect your productivity. It may engender sexism and gender inequality in your office. It may reduce collaboration and increase emails. But, like most design issues, offices are complicated–and a new study suggests there is one very good reason to embrace the open plan: It’s making you healthier.


At least that’s what a new study, published in the British medical journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine this month, suggests. The research is part of a $3.3 million, U.S. General Services Administration-funded project called “Wellbuilt for Wellbeing,” studying how workplace design affects health. According to the authors, workers in open plan offices tend to move around more, as opposed to people in cubicles and private offices. The former ended up less stressed, while the latter were more anxious and unhappy at the end of the day.

[Source Image: ZernLiew/iStock]
The research–led by Casey Lindberg, an associate researcher at the University of Arizona’s Institute on Place, Wellbeing, and Performance–took a group of 231 people working in federal office buildings and equipped them with stress and activity sensors for three workdays and two nights. “[These] sensors can inform policies and practices that affect the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of office workers worldwide,” Lindberg says in a statement. The study subjects wore a cardiac activity sensor that works like a portable electrocardiogram, as well as a triaxial accelerometer that monitored how they moved all day long. The subjects also used a mobile app to report how tense they were on an hourly basis.

This way, the authors were recording both their physical stress levels and their perceived stress levels, rather than just one or the other.

[Image: Lindberg CM, Srinivasan K, Gilligan B, et al./BMJ]

The results were surprising considering the derision many people feel for the open office paradigm. Workers in open offices were 32% more physically active at their jobs than employees in private offices, and 20% more active than people working in cubicles. Most importantly, however, the workers who were more active had “14% less physiological stress outside of the office compared to those with less physical activity at the office.” Physiological stress is the response to an external stressor like our environment, which triggers a biological response in our bodies.

[Source Image: ZernLiew/iStock]
The authors conclude that the type of office workstation you use is directly related to your health. It’s clear that open offices significantly promote “enhanced physical activity,” which results in a much “reduced physiological and perceived stress” when compared to cubicles or private offices.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that illnesses connected to workplace behavior cost more than $225 billion a year just to the U.S. economy, and such research is crucial to understanding how to promote healthier workspace design.


[Source Image: ZernLiew/iStock]
Perhaps we should stop and reflect on how we act and feel at work before blaming one particular aspect of our workspaces. Or perhaps, as architect Ashley L. Dunn suggested earlier this month here in Fast Company, we need to stop designing offices that are strictly mono-spatial, and instead incorporate a greater range of spaces in any given office–along with promoting breaks over the course of any day. In truth, the problem may lie deeper, with our society’s relationship with work. If we promoted an approach to work-life balance that included reasonable office hours, paid vacation, and break times, I have a feeling that the layout of our offices would have very little overall impact on our physical or mental health.

In any case, the group’s research clearly indicates that our offices affect our health. The question is how, exactly, to balance physical health, emotional well-being, and collaboration with the right design.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.