Shared office spaces – what to make of them

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Scientific interpretation

It is not that long ago that work required employees to be physically present on the organization’s premises, mainly due to the limits of technology: today, these limits are disappearing thanks to portable computers, smart phones and wireless internet. The rapid expansion of technologies now gives organizations the ability to save costs through teleworking, but also through rearranging workspaces by opening them up: they can now be shared and can house more employees in the same space.

These shared office spaces are seen as innovative, modern, flexible and allowing for more efficient sharing of information and better communication. Is this really the case? It seems that these shared spaces present serious challenges for organizations along with obstacles to employees’ well-being. To shed light on the topic, Morrison and Macky (2017) published a study on the impacts of shared office spaces.

Expert advisers

Rosalie Lamontagne, master’s student, Faculty of Kinesiology, Université de Sherbrooke

 Marie-Ève Major, professor of ergonomics, Faculty of Kinesiology, Université de Sherbrooke

Authors

Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

 MARIE-ÉLISE LABRECQUE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY:

Shared office spaces

Shared offices in open spaces, commonly called shared office spaces, are generally open-concept rooms with large tables where employees can settle in with their laptop computer, without a designated spot.

The demands–resources model at work

In this model, demands related to the work being done represent prolonged cognitive or emotional stress that involves physiological or psychological costs. Consider, for example, increased work pressure, a physically unfriendly work environment or emotionally demanding interactions. Shared office spaces can impose extra demands and an increased workload on employees by creating a work environment where privacy can be reduced or potential social distractions are magnified and where negative or emotionally draining interactions with others can arise.

Conversely, resources related to the work being done help to achieve objectives, meet work requirements and stimulate growth and personal development. Here we can think of social support from colleagues, support through supervision and feedback on performance.

The demands–resources model at work anticipates that, on the one hand, demands incur costs, draining an individual’s energy and leading to tensions and health problems, while resources can motivate employees and lead to increased engagement and performance. Resources therefore will allow employees to meet the requirements of demands; this balance can help to foster workplace well-being and productivity.

Demands and resources

To achieve their objectives, the authors identified the three most significant demands and the two most significant resources in the literature, in order to measure their impact on employees working in shared spaces.

The three demands are distractions (visual and audio); uncooperative behaviours (behaviours of retreat and isolation); and negative relationships and distrust (impersonal spaces adversely affect personal identity and create tensions). The two resources are friendships between co-workers (proximity can lead to friendships that foster well-being and communication) and manager support (the perception that managers have employees’ well-being at heart).

Complete reference

Morrison, R. L., et Macky, K. A. (2017). The demands and resources arising from shared office spaces. Applied ergonomics, 60(1), 103-115.

Method

Country: Australia

Recruitment of participants: Online employee database

Number of participants: 1000

Method used: Online questionnaire

Sex: 55% women, 45% men

Average age: 46 years

Average seniority: 6 years

WHAT DO THE RESULTS OF THE STUDY TELL US?

The authors linked the three demands and the two resources they identified to the reality of shared workspaces. Here is what they found:

Demands :

  • Distractions, uncooperative behaviours, and negative relationships and distrust are greater in shared office spaces than in other types of work arrangements (private offices or offices shared by only two or three people).

 

  • Demands are indeed higher in shared office spaces, but it seems that they are greatly mitigated when employees have designated work stations in these spaces.

Interpretation

One of the major challenges of shared office spaces seems to be the inability to personalize one’s workspace with family photos, posters or other decorative objects. In fact, when work stations are not designated, it is impossible for employees to make them their own and, in this way, assert their identity and foster their sense of belonging to the organization, which creates more tensions.

Ressources :

  • Fewer friendships between colleagues exist in shared office spaces, compared to those that occur when employees have private offices or among people who work mainly from home or on the road.

 

  • Employees who work in shared office spaces said that they perceived less organizational support than employees who work in other types of work arrangements.

Interpretation

Spaces arranged in a more separated fashion involve less frequent and less direct contact with colleagues and managers. This would have the effect of increasing positive perception of these relationships, because interactions are less frequent. In fact, if contact is less frequent, they are more likely to be generally more positive and perceived as such, unlike shared office spaces, where close contact fractures this effect.

Based on the demands–resources model at work, the authors conclude that in the case of shared office spaces, demands are indeed present, while resources seem insufficient: this destabilizes the relationship between the variables and reduces employees’ well-being and productivity in this type of working arrangement.

ACTIONS EMPLOYERS CAN TAKE

Physical workspace

  • Allow the assigning and personalizing of workspaces.
  • Use barriers (solid or made of plants) or shelving to reduce visual distractions.
  • Give employees access to noise-reduction equipment (headphones, etc.).
  • Allow employees to reserve space in enclosed offices when needed.
  • Offer access to enclosed rooms that have been adapted for team meetings.
  • Create small-group workspaces (chairs and tables set up to allow for spontaneous and informal collaborative work).
  • Make available to employees a place where they can use lockers to store equipment and paper documents.

Relationship between employees and managers

  • Ensure that the relationship with managers is not simply limited to their presence; plan times for individual feedback and mentoring.
  • Set aside time for dedicated supervision or planned team meetings, eventually with screens and headphones for more privacy for the supervisory relationship.
  • Evaluate the work environment and employees’ participation in designing workspaces as part of an approach focused on the user to introduce shared office spaces.
  • Plan evaluations of work arrangements by employees and managers, to be able to adapt quickly if the environment is not optimal.

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM OUR EXPERTS

  • Analyze the type of work being done to determine whether shared office spaces are appropriate and allow employees to meet their work demands. Despite the advantages that this type of space can offer, if the set-up affects a person’s ability to do their work, it cannot be seen as a solution. Other organizational approaches could be more appropriate, which is why it is important to do in-depth analysis of the workplace.
  • Include employees in project development when it comes to change and in the decision-making process regarding the facilities by considering their opinion and their extensive work expertise: this is a winning formula. Indeed, they are the experts when it comes to their work and can therefore bring interesting ideas that apply to the work the way it is actually done.
  • Put in place a system that allows employees to give their opinion on a regular basis so you know what needs to be improved (e.g. online questionnaire, suggestion box).
  • Be sure to leave employees some room to manoeuvre by not making them use a workspace and by allowing them to move from a shared workspace to a separate space during the day, according to their needs.
  • Divide employees into sub-groups based on the type of work they do or group employees who need to work together frequently in different rooms. In this way, employees share their space with colleagues who have the same needs (e.g. the need for silence to do work that has higher psychological demands) and are exposed to smaller groups.
  • Make adjustable furniture (e.g. chairs, desks) available to employees. Given that places are not assigned, several employees from different areas will use the same workspace. It is therefore essential to ensure that everyone can be comfortable.
  • Set common rules and a clear way of working to respect all users (e.g. keep the work environment clean, wear headphones, use the phone in enclosed rooms).

 

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Lamontagne, R., Major, M.-E., Fouquet, E., Labrecque, M.-E. (2019). Shared office spaces – what to make of them. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Morrison, R. L., et Macky, K. A. (2017). The demands and resources arising from shared office spaces. Applied ergonomics, 60(1), 103-115.

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