Latest "Last Word" on Open Offices: They Keep You Fitter and Lower Stress

office interior from website

Everyone bashes the open office, but a new study finds that they are better for you.

Bashing the open office has been a thing of late, with a lot of people latching on to a Harvard study that concluded that instead of promoting collaboration and conversation, wall-free offices encourage workers to talk less and email more. Fast Company called it the final nail in the coffin of open plan offices. Libby Sander wrote:

..despite the pursuit of collaboration in workplaces, the need for concentration and focused individual work is also increasing. And research shows that when employees can’t concentrate, they tend to communicate less. They may even become indifferent to their coworkers.
Others have noted in response

Now, yet another study contradicts the Harvard research. The study, Effects of office workstation type on physical activity and stress, monitored sensors wired to 231 office workers in four different buildings. They measured responses of workers in private offices, cubicles and fully open seating.

study structure

Casey M Lindberg et al, from study- Effects of office workstation type on physical activity and stress/CC BY 2.0

The employees in the fully open office had the highest level of physical activity, which was directly related to lower physiological stress levels. Evidently, they got up and moved around a lot more, perhaps to get away from their co-workers for a bit, or because their office is activity-based, and they are moving from one function to another.

This is the first study to show that open bench seating may be an unrecognised positive factor in promoting physical activity levels at work. Given the importance of physical activity to health, the fact that office workstation type may influence how much people move at work should not be overlooked in the health field.

Mark Eltringham of Workplace Insight discusses the study with an expert:

“In terms of impact on health, this increase in physical activity is important,” concludes Esther Sternberg, director of the University of Arizona Institute on Place and Wellbeing. “It is well within the range that would have an impact health.... If we can figure out how to design offices to allow people to be more active, that will result in better health and lower stress, so educating people about that is really important.”
Herman Miller's action office

© Herman Miller

Somewhere in Elysium, Robert Probst and George Nelson are having a good laugh. Probst designed the Action Office for Herman Miller; according to Nikil Saval in Cubed, he developed different workstations at different heights for different functions.

And rather than the sedentary monotony of normal office work, Propst found himself constantly in motion, moving from one working area to another, standing to sitting. All this activity made him feel more productive, alert, vital.

George Nelson reiterated: “The Lord never meant a man to be immobilized in one position ... These are not desks and file cabinets. They are a way of life.”

Wellness in the office is a very big deal these days, so a study that concludes that open offices make you more active and lower stress is going to be influential. And no matter what, the open office isn’t going away; it is far more flexible and economical for companies. It is also much greener, as Lance Hosey has written:

Cutting area also considerably slashes energy and emissions. If every office building in America shrank by just 10 percent, greenhouse gases would decline by the equivalent of taking seven million cars off the road. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes open work plans as a standard strategy for saving energy because, even without reducing the area of a building, fewer partitions make it easier to distribute artificial light and mechanical air at lower quantities with less equipment. But open space also allows natural light and outside air to spread more easily, lowering dependence on electrical systems. Many smart office buildings require no artificial lighting at all during the day, and this simply cannot be achieved with too many walls.
Ace Hotel Lobby

Ace Hotel Lobby, New York City/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have been saying for years that open offices are more efficient in terms of use of space, more flexible and adaptable. They offer the employee more opportunity to work from home or in teams as required. They are more adaptable to changes in the way we work. These days, an office can be almost anything or anywhere; for most people it is a place where you put your computer and meet other workers. My favourite open office is the lobby of the Ace Hotel in New York, where I have done both these things.

So get real, the open office is here to stay, whatever they say at Harvard.