New research says open offices don't work if employees can't have some privacy.
Woman at desk, staring at computer screen
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If you’re feeling tense in your open office plan, it might not all be in your head. These team workstations and collaborative environments could be hurting office relationships, especially for women. Researchers from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden studied different types of open offices that were designed for teamwork, and saw that employees experienced more conflict and disturbances depending on the office design, and women tended to be dissatisfied more often than men. The findings were published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

They studied more than 5,000 employees in seven different office layouts, and found that so-called combi- and flex-office designs had particularly negative effects for employees. In the flex-office plan, no one had an official workstation—everyone worked in communal spaces. In the combi-office, people had individual workspaces, but typically these employees spend more than 20 percent of their time away from their desks, working in teams. Although these offices attempt to encourage camaraderie and collaboration, researchers say “activity-based” offices are actually breeding more conflict than other open plans.

"In a combi-office, the fact that you work as a team could be a possible explanation for the environment's negative impact on conflicts,” lead author Christina Bodin Danielsson said in a statement. "Group work itself shown to lead to conflicts."

In the span of two years, they found that women experienced more conflict, stress, and disturbance in open office plans. In a combi-office, both men and women experienced equal conflict, but in flex-offices, 22 percent of female participants reported conflict. Only 14 percent of male employees reported conflict. Higher percentages of women in both categories reported ongoing conflict as well, and more than 50 percent of women in both offices were disturbed by noise. Forty-seven percent of men reported noise disturbance in flex-offices, and about 50 percent of men in combi-offices reported the same.

However, women experienced fewer conflicts in medium and large open offices, with fewer than 10 percent reporting conflict compared to complaints reported in the other office layouts. The researchers speculate that women are “more affected than men by physical stimuli,” in the team-based, activity-based offices.

A previous study from the same institution showed that office types are also tied to stress levels—women were often twice as stressed as men in open plan offices. Women are also at higher risk for taking sick leave in open offices, possibly due to the increased risk of stress and the feeling of being always “exposed” and lacking privacy. So, while teamwork is great, maybe offices could use a few extra doors, too.