Men and women respond to open-plan office designs differently

Combination offices, mixing open-plan and semi-private spaces, are supposed to be the next step in office design. But there’s a catch

Employees sitting in a “breakout tent” at Hootsuite headquarters in Vancouver

Hootsuite employees meeting in a “breakout tent” at the company’s Vancouver headquarters. (Hootsuite)

With their mix of semi-private and open-plan communal spaces, “combi-offices” are intended to boost overall worker happiness and productivity. For many, such office designs are a welcome change from the drab cubicle farms pioneered in the ’70s and still found in many office buildings today.  We already know that not everyone loves more open formats; a recent study suggests that such setups tend to have differing effects by gender as well.

A recent study in Sweden titled “The relation between office type and workplace conflict: A gender and noise perspective” and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, looked at the data of 5,229 employees who participated in the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health.

The researchers analyzed the psychological impact of different office layouts on workers and found differing dynamics by gender. For instance, they observed that women were more likely to report having conflict with their colleagues while working in a combi-office. Analysis of the data found that 16.2% of women who worked in combi-offices reported having ongoing conflicts with colleagues versus 14.7% of women in general, a small but noticeable uptick. Women in combi-offices were also slightly more likely than men to say that the setups were noisy and distracting (56.3% versus 50.5%).

One theory floated by the researchers is that the disturbances caused by this type of workspace configuration has less to do with “differences in sensitivity to environmental stimuli between men and women,” but rather “differences in patterns of interpersonal relationships.”

“It is established that women receive more social support than men at work,” the study posits. The spatial layout in combi-offices is more closed off whereas “proximity, visibility and audibility have been shown to be key factors for support in social networks”—features offered in open offices. (Naturally, someone’s gender doesn’t determine their individual reaction to combi-offices; the researchers observed the effect only in aggregate.)

One extra detail the researchers found: managers benefitted from the psychological impact of more open office plans—employees thought more highly of their boss’s leadership abilities in this setting than in any other office type.