Open plan workspaces – are they really working for women around the world?

by Brian Margerison
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In January 2019, Australian labour workforce statistics showed there were fewer than six million women employed in the country. This was a 2.4 percent increase on 2018, and by November 2019 the number had grown again to 6.117 million.

This steady growth has taken place in a market where employment stats for men have shown a slight decline.

So it seems women are quickly catching up to men in terms of bringing home the bacon.

It also means more and more women are spending their workdays in open plan office areas that have now become the standard in our corporate workplaces, with co-workers sitting side by side at large worktables or at tightly-packed workstations.

For years, CEOs around the world have led the drive towards open workspaces as a way of reducing costs and making their employees more productive – open plan environments have been viewed as an ideal way of encouraging better performance through improved interaction. However, there’s little actual evidence that this view has delivered the expected results.

Recent intervention-based field studies conducted in Australia have tended to show both skewed and negative outcomes.

Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, though, as the current average workspace-per-employee in Australia is fairly low compared with international standards for modern workplaces.  The problems associated with open plan offices have been widely analysed and reported, and they are well summarised in a recent Business Insider blog posting.

Did you know:

Studies find that open plan spaces can have a strongly negative impact on employees’ peace of mind – with a resulting decline in productivity.

And it seems this can be particularly true for women.

Various international research initiatives have shown some interesting results that indicate open plan environments are not well-suited to our growing female workforce.

Report 1

The UK:  ‘Isolation, Discrimination and the Paradox Effect of Open Plan’

In 2018 a study on open plan workspaces was conducted by members of the independent scientific academy of the Royal Society of London.

Using advanced wearable sensors that produced real-time digital data collected by communication servers, the study gauged the positive or negative behavioural changes of employees as they engaged in face-to-face versus electronic (instant messaging and email) interactions.

Contrary to popular belief and expectations, the results of the study showed that open workspaces had a major negative effect on human interaction in the workplace. While electronic interactions increased, there was a whopping 70 percent drop in face-to-face interaction between co-workers.

But decreased face-to-face employee interaction isn’t the only negative outcome of implementing an open plan workspace. According to a different study, open plan layouts can also be seen as discriminatory.

This research focused on a local government moving its 1100 employees from smaller traditional office layouts and locations to a single, large open plan environment over three years.

During this period 13 men and 27 women were interviewed on multiple formal occasions as well as being involved in a program of meetings, coffee breaks and lunch breaks with employees involved in the study.

What it discovered:

The study concluded that many women became hyper-aware of being watched on a constant basis, while also reporting that they felt their appearance was on trial.

Several women employees also reported that “there isn’t anywhere that you don’t feel watched”. There was no evidence of men feeling similarly, or any indication the men had changed their actions as a result of the change in privacy from the open plan workspace.

Report 2

The US: ‘The Temperature and the Damage Done’

A joint study by members of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in the US and Germany’s WZB Berlin Social Science Center discovered that the average open plan office temperature sits at around 21 degrees celsius, which is directly based on the “metabolic rates of men”, while leaving women employees uncomfortable at work.

What it discovered:

The study found the effects went far beyond women simply feeling uncomfortable – the amount of effort applied to specific tasks as well as overall performance in maths and verbal tasks was adversely affected by even relatively small decreases in office temperature.

The study shows women are literally being left behind in the cold, when it comes to open spaces in the workplace.

Report 3

Real Potential: Indian Women Break Through

While women across the Western world, and Australia, are progressing in leaps and bounds in the workforce, there is still a lot of work to be done in other countries.

Take India, for example. Less than one quarter of women age 15 and above participated in India’s workforce in 2018. This is compared to an Indian workforce composed of 78.6 percent of men. However, the low rate of women currently in India’s labour force is partly related to an uptick in numbers continuing their education.

This is great news – increasing the number of women in the workforce by 10 percent could increase India’s GDP by $770 billion by 2025. It will be interesting to watch India change, as more women exit their secondary education and find suitable jobs.

So how should our workplaces evolve?

In general, open plan workspaces don’t seem to have lived up to their expected promise of increased interaction and productivity.

Some studies even suggest they may have had the reverse effect – triggering withdrawal behaviour from officemates who then interact more over email and other digital channels.

Women appear to be the group worst affected by the negative aspects of open plan office, with reports of unease related to ‘always being on show’ and discomfort associated with environments that have largely been designed from a male perspective.

But women continue to play an increasingly large role in the workplace, and it makes sense to pay more attention to catering to their specific needs rather than simply implementing open plan design concepts that are disconnected with the real demands of our modern working environments.

Finding the workplace technology solution that works

We need to consider other options that help to alleviate the negative, stressful aspects of open plan workspace design; options that may be better aligned to the work that needs to be done or the preferences of our employees – such as traditional office spaces, flexible meeting and conference spaces, team rooms, collaboration spaces, quiet spaces, huddle spaces and focus pods.

With an increasing number of workspace configurations and options at our employees’ disposal, it has also become essential to provide employees with a workplace technology solution designed to help in finding the ideal workspace for a particular workday, or selecting the best room layout for a meeting together with its various associated services such as fully integrated catering and  hospitality services, visitor management and parking space reservation.

Modern workplace technology solutions allow us to fully connect our workspace with everything from meeting room scheduling, video conferences, visitor management, digital signage and catering.

For example, the workplace technology solution offered by NFS Technology’s Rendezvous Workspace, allows staff to use an app to book meetings quickly across multiple locations and time zones. If the meeting time changes, it notifies you.

In addition, remote employees can easily find and book the desk they need at any time – and they can specify what they want down to small but important details such as a quiet space or a cool temperature.

The way we use our workspaces is continuing to evolve, all around the world, and the workforce is changing too. But if you’re seeking the perfect path forward for your workplace on the route, combining the benefits of open plan with care for each individual worker’s needs could be the perfect answer.

Brian Margerison is a director at NFS Technology.

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