Does how and where you work affect privacy and communication? As anyone who's worked in a cubicle or a corner office can attest, it's an obvious question. And yet, the answer isn't as straight forward. Many tech firms will tell you how open workspaces have helped teams collaborate more efficiently, while most executives know they've made it when they achieve the corner suite. Recently a team of researchers set out to find out the distinct benefits associated with various office spaces and how they affect workspace satisfaction. 

Workspace Privacy vs. Communication

In their paper "Workspace Satisfaction: The Privacy-Communication Trade-Off in Open-Plan Offices," researchers from the University of Sydney compiled data using the University of California at Berkeley's Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) database from the Center for the Built Environment (CBE). The CBE is one of the most widely used evaluation tools and included in many building rating systems such as LEED. The CBE questionnaire classifies office layouts into five categories depending on the level of personal enclosure:

  • Enclosed private office
  • Enclosed shared office
  • Cubicles with high partitions (about five or more feet high)
  • Cubicles with low partitions (lower than five feet high)
  • Open office with no partitions or limited partitions

Using this information, researchers sought to understand if occupant satisfaction with various Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) factors change depending on different office layouts, as well as if the priority of various IEQ factors (i.e. relative importance for shaping occupants’ overall workspace satisfaction) differ between occupant groups in different office layouts and if the benefits offset the disadvantages in the open-plan office layout. 

People in Private Offices Shouldn't Throw Stones

Now, before we get into the results, it's fair to admit that while we all want to believe that collaborative workspaces really do work, secretly, we long for a private office. We've all suffered through cubicle-mates who clipped their toenails, spoke too loudly on the phone or watched cat videos on YouTube. Most of us like to think that at some point in our lives, we've earned the right to close a door, pour a drink and maybe take a nap on the couch like Mad Man's Don Draper. 

Not surprisingly, according to the study, those with enclosed private offices registered the highest overall workspace satisfaction score, followed by enclosed shared office and then three configurations of open-plan offices (i.e. high partitioned, low partitioned and no/limited partitioned). Additionally, enclosed private office significantly outscored the other office layouts across most of the IEQ factors and their occupants rated all aspects of IEQ positively. 

workspace privacy communication.png

When it came down to those with enclosed offices and open-plan offices the noticeable differences included "visual privacy," "amount of space," "sound privacy" and "noise level." As one might expect, one's satisfaction with "visual privacy" declined as the degree of enclosure decreased, though "sound privacy" didn’t exhibit any correspondence with the degree of enclosure in office layout -- perhaps because most of us have become accustomed to working while wearing earbuds. 

Maybe the most revealing result is that satisfaction with "ease of interaction" was no higher in open-plan offices than in private office. However, among three open-plan configurations, occupants in
no/limited partitioned office tend to be more satisfied with the most of IEQ factors except "visual privacy," compared to those in cubicles.

Open Workspaces Can Still Thrive

While the study didn't break down satisfaction by industry level, I think we all can agree that for some organizations an open workspace makes a lot of sense, especially if the company values collaboration and innovation. The study didn't measure if open spaces affected different levels of employees differently. Were you more likely to be satisfied with an enclosed private office if you were a member of the C-suite than if you were a mid-level manager or customer representative

The study does confirm what we're all thinking. But doesn't mean we should abandon new ways of working. Additionally, just because you have an open workspace doesn't mean you're collaborating better than others. It takes more than just tearing down walls -- it also requires a commitment to technology and process management. 

Image credit: Shutterstock / AdStock RF