In Sweden, sickness absence has been high among the working population in recent years. Ill health has become a macroeconomic problem. Research shows that psychosocial environmental factors have a great influence on mental and physiological health, and we know that job satisfaction probably plays an important part in this context. Psychological ill health is the most common cause of sickness absence among office workers.
On the other hand, we know much less of how the physical office environment affects office workers and their job satisfaction. A research based design and construction process would be needed. The relationships among form, function and health and job satisfaction are complex. It is not enough to design office environments only on the basis of practical experience and professional preconceptions. Management wishes to have more interaction and information sharing among employees, so that creativity and effectivity at the workplace may be enhanced in this way and better results may be achieved in the long run. The research issue is whether, how and in what way the physical office environment can help improve office work.
Broad approach essential
Research concerning the influence of the physical environment on the individual has ranged over a broad spectrum. In environmental psychology, researchers have studied individual environmental factors, such as sound, to see how it affects the subjective perception of stress. The study shows that noise gives rise to dissatisfaction with the physical working environment.
Stress medicine has focused on how the body reacts to different stimuli in the environment. This research shows that a view of roads and traffic produces higher stress levels in the blood than a view of nature.
In management research there are studies which have attempted to chart the effect of the physical working environment on performance and efficiency. The results indicate that a highly rated physical working environment results in greater job satisfaction.
In the area, architecture, that has a direct influence on the physical environment, there are few studies that show how design affects the end users.
In our opinion, it is important to bring together the different disciplines so that we may have an opportunity to measure and assess the influence of the physical office environment on the employees. In other words: an interdisciplinary approach is essential. It is also important to apply a holistic view to the office environment, since it is the totality of different factors that constitutes the actual office environment.
We who are participating in this research project have different backgrounds and competence in architecture, statistics, epidemiology and occupational and environmental medicine applications. With the support of Formas we are working within the framework of a cooperative project between School of Architecture and Built Environment, KTH and Örebro University.
Private room or flexible office?
In an initial study, 491 people employed by 26 companies were analysed with reference to self-reported health status, job satisfaction and perception of the physical office environment. The types of office we are studying are defined by their architectural and functional characteristics as outlined below:
- cell office (private room)
- shared room (2-3 people/room)
- flexible office (no workplace of one's own)
- combination office (team based office type) and
- open plan office, broken down into
- small open plan office (4–9 people /room)
- open plan office of medium size (10–24 people/room) and
- large open plan office (>24 people/room)
We have compared the different types of office and have taken into consideration the fact that there may be differences among those employed in different types of office with respect to age, sex, appointment and the type of company.
The results reveal considerable differences. As regards health status, two types of office, flexible and cellular, had much better results than the others. The worst reported health occurred among those working in open plan offices of medium size, closely followed by those in small open plan offices. As regards job satisfaction, flexible offices and shared rooms were best. The worst were combination offices and open plan offices of medium size.
Those working in cell offices were best satisfied with their working environment - it was only when the social aspects of the office were considered that they were dissatisfied, for example with the support of the office environment for community spirit among all employees. Best satisfied with the support given by the office for community spirit and interaction were those working in flexible offices.
The worst rating with respect to contentment was received by open plan offices of medium size, followed by large open plan offices.
Open plan office the worst
That there were such large differences between people working in different types of office was surprising, particularly the differences that were revealed between the three types of open plan layout. The open plan office of medium size consistently figured as the worst type of office. What explains the difference in the perception of the office environment? We will now do further work on creating a closer linkage between the architectural design of the office type and the differences found in health status, job satisfaction and contentment. We are also hoping to have the opportunity to take a closer look at what stress levels are like among those working in different types of office. There are interesting differences in preliminary data. We have the opportunity through in-depth interviews to extend our knowledge beyond that obtained from the interview survey.
Future office design
We believe that, with scientific knowledge of how the physical office environment affects those working there, expensive mistakes can be avoided. Our objective therefore is to translate the knowledge generated by this research into practical guidelines for the various stakeholders who are involved in creating our offices.
The practical side of the theory is its ability to give good advice. With such a research based design, we should be able to create office environments that support both those working there and the organisations.
is Professor at School of Economics, Örebro University.
is Associate Professor at School of Architecture and Built Environment, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH).
Christina Bodin Danielsson
is a postgraduate student at School of Architecture and Built Environment, KTH.
Danielsson, C. (2005). Office Environment, Health and Job Satisfaction. An Explorative Study of Office Design's Influence. KTH, Stockholm.