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Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices

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This study examined the independent and joint influences of stimulus screening, inhibitory ability, perceived privacy and task complexity on the satisfaction and performance of employees working in open-plan offices. One hundred and nine participants from two organizations completed questionnaires and inhibitory ability measures. Performance was assessed through manager ratings. Results partially confirmed hypotheses that satisfaction and performance would be reduced for employees with poor stimulus screening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy, or complex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact to produce employees’ negative reactions were also partially confirmed. Importantly, results verify stimulus screening as a significant determinant of employees’ reactions to the open-plan workplace. Implications for understanding employees’ attitudinal and behavioral responses to the workplace, limitations of the study, and implications for future research are discussed.
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Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219– 229
Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices
Alena Maher, Courtney von Hippel
School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia
Available online 15 August 2005
Abstract
This study examined the independent and joint influences of stimulus screening, inhibitory ability, perceived privacy and task
complexity on the satisfaction and performance of employees working in open-plan offices. One hundred and nine participants from
two organizations completed questionnaires and inhibitory ability measures. Performance was assessed through manager ratings.
Results partially confirmed hypotheses that satisfaction and performance would be reduced for employees with poor stimulus
screening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy, or complex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact to
produce employees’ negative reactions were also partially confirmed. Importantly, results verify stimulus screening as a significant
determinant of employees’ reactions to the open-plan workplace. Implications for understanding employees’ attitudinal and
behavioral responses to the workplace, limitations of the study, and implications for future research are discussed.
r2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Research has consistently demonstrated that charac-
teristics of the office environment can have a significant
effect on behavior, perceptions, and productivity of
workers (e.g. Altman & Lett, 1969;Oldham &
Rotchford, 1983;Woods & Canter, 1970). Workplace
characteristics such as noise, lighting conditions, and the
amount of space available per employee can contribute
to employee turnover (Oldham & Fried, 1987;Sund-
strom, Herbert, & Brown, 1982), discretionary with-
drawal (Oldham & Fried, 1987), satisfaction (Block &
Stokes, 1989;Oldham, 1988;Oldham & Brass, 1979;
Sundstrom, Burt, & Kamp, 1980), and performance
(Sundstrom et al., 1982;Wineman, 1986).
A fundamental aspect of the workplace environment
that contributes to such employee behavior is the layout
of office space. Conventional workplace designs tend to
provide closed, private offices for employees. In
contrast, the more contemporary open-plan design is
characterized by an absence of floor-to-ceiling walls and
internal boundaries, as illustrated by cubicles or parti-
tioned workspaces (Zalesny & Farace, 1987). Both open
and closed offices have featured in studies addressing the
relationship between the physical features of the work-
place and employee perceptions and behavior (Becker,
Gield, Gaylin, & Sayer, 1983;Block & Stokes, 1989;
Brookes & Kaplan, 1972;Crouch & Nimran, 1989;
Hedge, 1982;Oldham, 1988;Oldham & Brass, 1979;
Oldham & Fried, 1987;O’Neill, 1994;Sundstrom et al.,
1980, 1982;Wineman, 1986). The open-plan office
design in particular has received attention in current
research. Its popularity as a workplace design has
increased substantially (Krekhovetsky, 2003;The Econ-
omist, 1998), prompting researchers to question the
value it offers to the employee and the organization in
comparison to traditional designs. The current research
examines the open-plan office design and employees’
reactions to this working environment.
1.1. The impact of the open-plan office design on
employee behavior and attitudes
Proponents of the open-plan office suggest that the
open plan creates flexible space, allowing for a reduction
ARTICLE IN PRESS
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doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.05.002
Corresponding author. Tel.: +612 9385 3017.
E-mail address: c.vonhippel@unsw.edu.au (C. von Hippel).
in set-up and renovation times. It also enables the
accommodation of greater numbers of employees in
reduced amounts of space (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline,
2002;Zeitlin, 1969). As a result the total office space
required is reduced and organizations save on air
conditioning, maintenance and building costs. Suppor-
ters of the open-plan design also claim that the design
facilitates communication and increases interaction
between employees, and as a result improves employee
satisfaction, morale and productivity (Bach, 1965;
Brennan et al., 2002;Dean, 1977;Oldham, 1988).
Indeed, some evidence exists to support these positive
effects. Open-plan offices have led to increased commu-
nication among coworkers (Allen & Gerstberger, 1973;
Hundert & Greenfield, 1969;Zahn, 1991), higher
aesthetic judgements, and more group sociability than
more conventional designs (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972). It
is not surprising then that many contemporary work-
places have adopted this design to decrease costs and
increase employee performance.
There is research, however, indicating that the
purported benefits of the open-plan design are accom-
panied by important costs as well. For example, open-
plan offices have been linked to increased workplace
noise (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972;Sundstrom et al., 1980;
Zalesny & Farace, 1987), increased disturbances and
distractions (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972;Clearwater,
1979;Hedge, 1982;Hundert & Greenfield, 1969;Old-
ham & Brass, 1979;Sundstrom et al., 1980), increased
feelings of crowding (Sundstrom et al., 1980), and loss of
privacy (Boyce, 1974;Brookes & Kaplan, 1972;Clear-
water, 1979;Hundert & Greenfield, 1969;Hedge, 1982;
Sundstrom et al., 1980). Further, researchers have
observed that these negative outcomes of the design
tend to result in dissatisfaction with both work and the
workplace (Marans & Yan, 1989;Oldham & Brass,
1979;Spreckelmeyer, 1993), reduced functional effi-
ciency (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972), and decreased
performance (Becker et al., 1983;Oldham & Brass,
1979). Thus it appears that although the reduction in
space and increased communication are reputed to be
benefits of the open-plan design, this design may also
induce negative reactions from the individuals occupy-
ing such workspaces.
1.2. The influence of space in the workplace
The contrary findings regarding the influence of open-
plan office designs have brought researchers to consider
which characteristics of the design specifically contribute
to its negative versus positive effects. The evidence
resulting from such research consistently indicates that it
is the inherent loss of space and increased contact with
coworkers that appear to drive the negative behavioral
and attitudinal responses of employees (Desor, 1972;
Hundert & Greenfield, 1969;Oldham & Rotchford,
1983;Sundstrom et al., 1980). The open-plan office has
exposed workspaces (few walls or partitions) and places
employees in close proximity to coworkers. Conse-
quently, employees find it difficult to avoid interpersonal
contact or maintain privacy. Different frameworks have
been adopted by researchers to explain this negative
impact of crowding or excessive social interaction in
office designs. Of these approaches, overstimulation
theory (e.g. Oldham, 1988) provides a particularly useful
basis for understanding the impact of crowded office
space. According to this theory, the combination of
excessive social interaction and small amounts of
personal space characteristic of the design exposes
employees to overstimulation (Desor, 1972;Paulus,
1980). Overstimulation generally evokes a negative
response from individuals, both behaviorally and
attitudinally, and in the workplace this likely results in
employee dissatisfaction and withdrawal (Oldham,
1988;Paulus, 1980).
Empirical research supports the theory of over-
stimulation as a partial explanation of the negative
effect of the open-plan office. Employees prefer low
levels of spatial density, high levels of privacy, and a
greater amount of architectural privacy (enclosures) in
their workplace (Oldham, 1988;Oldham & Rotchford,
1983;Sundstrom et al., 1980). They seek minimization
of unwanted intrusions and potential sources of
excessive stimulation in their workspace, and accord-
ingly are dissatisfied when the open-plan design does not
allow for these desired working conditions (Oldham &
Rotchford, 1983).
1.3. Individual differences in overstimulation
While much of the research on open-plan design has
examined why particular characteristics of the design
have a negative rather than positive influence, research-
ers have also considered whether individual differences
may also contribute to the variation in the impact of the
design. Empirical evidence confirms that the severity of
employees’ negative reactions indeed differs from person
to person (Wineman, 1986); some individuals appear
better able than others to cope with the excessive
stimulation inherent to the open-plan office environ-
ment. Mehrabian (1977) proposed that such individual
differences in coping are due to an ability he labels
stimulus screening. He distinguishes between screeners,
who effectively reduce overstimulation by attending to
information on a priority basis, and nonscreeners, who
do not (or cannot) apply this approach and tend to
become overstimulated.
Consistent with Mehrabian’s hypothesis, screeners are
less affected by crowding and spatial density than
nonscreeners (Baum, Calesnick, Davis, & Gatchel,
1982;Mehrabian, 1977;Oldham, 1988). Additionally,
the evidence suggests that screeners appear to effectively
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A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229220
reduce the stress of numerous stimuli whereas non-
screeners tend to become overaroused by the same
stimuli and as a result report more negative attitudinal
responses toward the environment (Mehrabian, 1977;
Oldham, Kulik, & Stepina, 1991).
1.4. The role of inhibitory ability
Evidence in support of Mehrabian’s (1977) concept of
screening ability highlights a crucial factor in effective
workplace performance: the ability to effectively block
excessive stimulation to concentrate on the relevant
information at hand. The processes underlying the
selective attention required for such concentration have
been the focus of substantial cognitive research, which
identifies inhibition of distractions as playing a crucial
role in selective attention (Dempster, 1991). Selective
attention appears to involve two opposite but comple-
mentary mechanisms: attention and inhibition (Dagen-
bach & Carr, 1994;Hasher & Zacks, 1988;Marcel, 1983;
Tipper, 1985, 1992). To pay attention to a particular
stimulus within a dynamic environment an individual
must attend to relevant information and inhibit or
suppress irrelevant information that is also present.
Effective inhibition allows the individual to avoid
simultaneous processing of many competing stimuli.
Inhibition is crucial to the individual’s capacity to
concentrate in a distracting environment as it reduces
the likelihood that overstimulation will occur and thus
allows the individual to effectively process the situation
(Dempster, 1991).
Like most cognitive skills, the ability to inhibit
information differs between various types of individuals.
For example, individuals with schizophrenia, attention
deficit disorder, obsessive behavior and individuals high
in cognitive failures have demonstrated reduced cogni-
tive inhibition (Beech, Powell, McWilliams, & Claridge,
1989;Tipper, 1992). Similarly, older adults display
poorer inhibitory ability than younger adults (Connelly,
Hasher, & Zacks, 1991;Hartman & Hasher, 1991;
Hasher, Stoltzfus, Zacks, & Rypma, 1991;Tipper, 1991)
and are more susceptible to distraction (Hasher &
Zacks, 1988).
Aside from these group differences in inhibitory
ability there is considerable evidence to suggest that
there are individual differences in the inhibitory ability
of normal adults (Conway, Cowan, & Bunting, 2001;
Hasher & Zacks, 1988;Rosen & Engle, 1997). For
example, normal adults show reliable and stable
differences in their ability on selective attention tasks
(e.g. the Stroop test) due to variations in the ability to
inhibit distractions (Tipper & Baylis, 1987). Harnishfe-
ger and Bjorklund (1994) also propose that individual
differences in inhibition are associated with differences
in performance in a wide range of tasks and abilities,
including reading ability and creativity. Because the
ability to inhibit irrelevant information lessens the
likelihood of one becoming overstimulated in highly
distracting situations (Dempster, 1991), it is feasible that
inhibitory ability influences an individual’s ability to
cope in such an environment. This research examines the
possibility that inhibitory ability may be the cognitive
mechanism through which stimulus screening exerts its
impact. Thus, whereas stimulus screening represents
individuals’ self-report of how well they cope in a
stimulating environment, inhibitory ability may repre-
sent the underlying cognitive ability that allows indivi-
duals to effectively screen out distractions inherent in a
stimulating environment.
According to this logic, a significant determinant of
an employee’s reaction to and performance in the
workplace may be the ability to screen out or inhibit
distracting or irrelevant information. This is particularly
true of an open-plan office, in which distractions and
overstimulation are intrinsically linked to the design.
Individuals with poor inhibitory ability are less capable
of suppressing distractions (Connelly et al., 1991)and
thus are more likely to be disrupted by the over-
stimulation commonly experienced in open-plan offices
(Desor, 1972;Paulus, 1980). As a result, negative
attitudinal and behavioral reactions of employees in
open-plan offices may be moderated by their inhibitory
ability.
This hypothesis, however, does not specify the precise
relationship between stimulus screening and inhibitory
ability. It may be that inhibitory ability serves as a
mediator between stimulus screening and employees’
reactions to the open plan offices. In such a manner,
inhibitory ability may be the cognitive mechanism that
differentiates a good screener from a poor screener.
Alternatively, inhibitory ability may enable people to
engage in stimulus screening, but their self-report of
stimulus screening may be primarily driven by affect or
arousal rather than cognitive responses to overstimulat-
ing environments. According to this latter possibility,
inhibitory ability may exert an independent influence
from stimulus screening in predicting employees’ reac-
tions to open plan offices. These competing relationships
between inhibitory ability and stimulus screening will be
explored in this paper.
1.5. The role of task complexity in the open-office design
The workplace design and an individual’s stimulus
screening appear to be capable of affecting work
performance in an open-plan office, but the extent to
which either effects employee behaviors and attitudes
may depend on precisely what each employee does
within the workplace. Different tasks require different
levels of attention and thus different levels of concen-
tration for their completion (Oldham & Fried, 1987).
Indeed, task complexities have been shown to influence
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A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229 221
how employees perform in and react to workspaces of
various designs (Block & Stokes, 1989;Brookes &
Kaplan, 1972;Hackman & Oldham, 1975;Hedge, 1982;
Oldham et al., 1991;Oldham & Fried, 1987;Stone,
2001;Sundstrom et al., 1980). The relationship between
task complexity and workplace environment on perfor-
mance is not straight forward, however. At first blush, it
seems likely that less complex tasks (e.g. such as routine
or well-learned tasks) which tend to require little
conscious attention will be less likely to be affected by
distractions within the work environment. In turn, more
complex tasks are likely to require more intense
concentration and are thus more likely to incur
performance deficits if employees become distracted
(Block & Stokes, 1989;Sundstrom et al., 1980). In
contrast, Oldham et al. (1991) suggests that simple tasks
require little concentration to complete and thus
individuals executing such tasks tend to focus their
attention on workplace intrusions, rather than the task,
and dissatisfaction ensues. In contrast, individuals
executing complex tasks have their attention diverted
toward task completion, thus their focus on intrusions
and associated dissatisfaction are abated.
Nonetheless, the bulk of the evidence suggests that
employees with complex jobs are most influenced by
open-plan offices in terms of satisfaction, workplace
attitudes, withdrawal behaviors and performance (Block
& Stokes, 1989;Brookes & Kaplan, 1972;Stone, 2001;
Sundstrom et al., 1980). Individuals performing highly
complex jobs appear to be more likely to be distracted
by the open-plan office, resulting in poor performance
and negative attitudes.
1.6. The role of perceived privacy in the open-office
design
Two common factors affecting privacy are limited
personal space and excessive unwanted interaction
(Chan, 1999). Yet individuals can interpret the same
situation very differently (Kaya & Weber, 2003).
Various adaptive processes and coping mechanisms
can result in different subjective interpretations of the
same environment (Chan, 1999). According to Hall
(1966), individuals have their own personal space which,
when violated, leads them to feel crowded and
uncomfortable. Thus, when infringements on personal
space intrinsic to the open-plan design exceed employ-
ees’ comfort levels, feelings of crowding and loss of
privacy are likely to emerge. These feelings of crowding
and loss of privacy then result in the dissatisfaction and
negative reactions displayed by employees working in
open-plan workspaces (Oldham & Rotchford, 1983).
Moreover, given that perceptions of crowding appear to
influence employees’ reactions to their work environ-
ment, it is conceivable that the reactions of individuals
in the same work environment could vary significantly
depending on individual differences in perceptions of
crowding and privacy. This possibility will be examined
in the current study.
1.7. The present study
The literature on open-plan offices suggests that
although the open-plan design has been associated with
the positive effects of increased employee communica-
tion and reduced office costs, this design has a negative
influence on employees’ attitudes and behavior. The
extent of this negative influence differs across indivi-
duals and situations. In particular, the empirical
evidence suggests that reactions to the open-plan design
are influenced by the relationship between the features
of the workspace and employees’ perceptions of privacy
(e.g. Paulus, 1980), screening ability (e.g. Oldham,
1988), and the complexity of tasks they perform (e.g.
Oldham et al., 1991). Research thus far, however, has
not yet examined all three of these relationships
simultaneously, thereby enabling an assessment of
whether all three of these variables may interact to
impact employee attitudes and behavior. This study
therefore aims to add to the literature on open-plan
office designs by investigating potential interaction
between these variables and how they may jointly
influence employee reactions to the design.
More specifically, the primary goal of this paper is to
examine the interactions among stimulus screening,
privacy, and task complexity. If certain individuals are
particularly skilled in blocking out distractions (i.e.
screeners) they may be able to effectively concentrate on
their work regardless of the distractions evident in the
workplace. Thus, reactions to open-plan offices are
expected to be the most negative among nonscreeners
when task complexity is high and perceptions of privacy
are poor, as it is under these conditions that over-
stimulation most likely occurs.
Although Mehrabian’s concept of stimulus screening
ability appears to incorporate the concept of inhibiting
excess information as a means of avoiding overstimula-
tion, it does not directly measure inhibitory ability. The
self-report scale used to measure stimulus screening
(Stimulus Screening Scale; Mehrabian, 1977) focuses on
an individual’s tendency to become overaroused when
faced with the stress of numerous stimuli (Oldham,
1988). Studies investigating the influence of screening
ability on reactions to workplace design therefore
appear to be assessing the relationship between an
individual’s reported ability to cope with arousal and
reactions to the open-plan environment. Although the
ability to cope with overstimulation may be a function
of inhibitory ability, this ability is distinct from stimulus
screening, and as noted earlier, may even be independent
of it. Consequently, a secondary aim of this study is to
investigate the proposition that inhibitory ability will
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A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229222
influence employees’ attitudinal and behavioral re-
sponses to the open-plan design, either as a mediator
of stimulus screening or in a manner distinct from the
influence of stimulus screening. Thus, this paper will
also examine the interactions among inhibitory ability,
job complexity and perceived privacy. It is expected that
these variables will interact in a manner similar to the
predictions expected with stimulus screening, indepen-
dent of whether inhibitory ability mediates stimulus
screening effects.
In all, this study aims to define the role of stimulus
screening and inhibitory ability in employees’ reactions
to workplace design, and then examine the combined
influence of inhibitory ability and stimulus screening,
perceived privacy and task complexity on employees’
responses to the open-plan environment. It is expected
that performance deficits and dissatisfaction will be the
greatest among nonscreeners/poor inhibitors, when
privacy is low and task complexity is high.
2. Method
Research setting and participants: The research was
conducted in two workplaces in Sydney, Australia—a
large Municipal Council and an international architec-
ture and design firm. Both workplaces were of an open-
plan design. The number of enclosures around each
employee’s workspace ranged from one to four parti-
tions or walls (M¼2:57, SD ¼.71). The social density
(number of employees within a 5 m radius of each
workspace) ranged from 1 to 22 employees (M¼11:77,
SD ¼4.64), and the distance between coworkers ranged
from 0.5 to 5 m (M¼1:74, SD ¼.60).
A total of 54 employees (25 males, 29 females) from
the Municipal Council and 61 employees (39 males, 22
females) from the architectural firm participated in the
study. Six participants (three from each workplace) were
from a nonEnglish speaking background and were
excluded from the analysis, as some tasks in the study
involved timed recognition of English words. Both
samples were comparable in terms of job levels, age
and education of employees, and tenure within the
organization (see Table 1 for participant characteristics).
Therefore, the two workplaces were combined to create
a final sample of 109 participants (60 males, 49 females).
Procedure: Data were collected on site by the
researcher. Prior to the commencement of the study,
employees were emailed about the nature and purpose
of the study and were notified of the organization’s
endorsement of their participation. Employees were
instructed to complete a consent form if they wished to
participate. Confidential questionnaires were then ad-
ministered to each participating employee’s desk. The
questionnaire included items that measured screening
ability, perceptions of the work environment (task
demands and privacy), and job satisfaction. Question-
naires were completed at the employees’ leisure and were
collected by the researcher when employees attended a
session for measuring inhibitory ability.
To maintain anonymity employees were each given a
code number based on the position of their workplace in
the office. They were also asked to supply their position
title and some demographic information. All partici-
pants supplied this information.
After completing the questionnaire participants were
asked to complete the Stroop test to measure inhibitory
ability. Participants were informed the session would
take 5 min of their time and would be held one-on-one
with the researcher in a site assigned by the organiza-
tion. During the session the researcher checked the
location of the participant’s workspace against a floor
plan to ensure their code number was correct. Partici-
pants were then given the instructions and informed that
they would be timed on the reading task. After
completing the session the researcher asked if the
participant had any questions, explained that the
reading task was a measure of inhibitory ability, and
clarified how it related to the research project.
Once all questionnaires were collected and Stroop
tests completed, managers were asked to complete
performance ratings for each participant. Managers
were required to assess each participant’s performance
on the three tasks each employee listed as the most
ARTICLE IN PRESS
Table 1
Participant characteristics
Workplace 1 Workplace 2 Total
Total participants 51 58 109
Males 22 38 60
Females 29 20 49
Job level Clerical–Senior Management Clerical–Chairman Clerical–Chairman
Education range High school–graduate school High school–graduate school High school–graduate school
Age 36.04 (9.56) 36.79 (15.17) 35.31 (9.49)
Age range 23–62 18–64 18–64
Tenure (years) 4.59 (6.33) 3.66 (5.45) 4.10 (5.87)
Tenure range 0–32.50 0–25.33 0–32.50
Note: standard deviations are in parentheses.
A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229 223
common they performed in their job. Managers were
also asked to give an overall performance rating. Each
manager was given a list of the tasks to rate for each
supervisee who participated in the study. New code
numbers were allocated to each participant to ensure
that the participants’ responses remained anonymous.
2.1. Measures
Objective privacy: The experimenter measured various
characteristics of the work environment, such as the
number and height of partitions for each employee. The
‘‘social density’’ of each employee’s workspace was also
measured through the number of employees within a 5-m
radius and the physical distance between coworkers.
Perceived privacy: As discussed earlier, employees’
perceptions of the impact the physical characteristics of
the work environment may be more important in
influencing reactions to the workplace than the char-
acteristics themselves. Therefore perceived privacy was
included as a measure of employee perceptions of the
work environment. Following Sundstrom et al. (1980),
privacy was operationalized as perceived control over
access to oneself. Five questionnaire items taken from
Crouch and Nimran (1989) and O’Neill (1994), were
averaged to form an index (a¼:71). Responses were
provided on a seven-point scale ranging from ‘‘Strongly
Disagree’’ to ‘‘Strongly Agree’’. A sample item is ‘‘My
normal work position is private’’, with a high score
indicating a high degree of perceived privacy.
Stimulus screening ability:AsinOldham (1988),
stimulus screening was operationalized as the degree to
which the participant is able to effectively reduce the
stress of environmental stimuli. Ten items from Mehra-
bian’s (1977) Stimulus Screening Scale were averaged to
form an index (a¼:77). Responses were provided on a
seven-point scale ranging from ‘‘Strongly Disagree’’ to
‘‘Strongly Agree’’. A sample item is: ‘‘I am strongly
moved when many things happen at once’’, with a high
score indicating poor screening ability.
Inhibitory ability: Inhibitory ability was assessed
through the Stroop (1935) Test. The Stroop test was
administered to participants individually during the
reading task session. It involved two color-identification
tasks. For the first task (no-inhibition required),
participants were instructed to name the color of blocks
listed on a page. For the second task (inhibition
required) participants were instructed to name the color
of the ink of a list of printed words that are also the
names of colors, but different from the color of the ink
(e.g. the word blue written in red ink). Here participants
have to inhibit the word meaning (blue) in order to
name the color of the ink (red). The difference in reading
times between the color blocks and the color words
indicates how well the participant can inhibit distrac-
tions. Inhibitory ability was thus operationalized as the
ratio of the difference in reading times between the
nondistracting and distracting task to the reading time
for the nondistracting task, with a higher ratio indicat-
ing greater distraction and thus poor inhibitory ability.
Stroop tasks with similar measurement parameters have
been shown to measure inhibitory ability (e.g. West &
Alain, 2000).
Task complexity: The questionnaire asked partici-
pants to nominate three tasks that they most commonly
performed in their job. Participants then rated each task
on ‘‘Task Attribute’’ items constructed for this study.
These items assessed, how much concentration it
required, how readily one can be distracted from it,
and how difficult the task is. Responses were given on a
five-point scale ranging from ‘‘Not at all’’ to ‘‘Extre-
mely’’. Sample items include ‘‘Does this task require
your full attention?’’ and ‘‘How easily are you distracted
when doing this task?’’ An additional complexity rating
was also assigned to each task by relying on the
complexity ratings adapted from Hedge (1982). This
scale involves five levels of complexity: routine clerical,
advanced clerical, technical, advanced technical and
managerial. The Hedge ratings were then combined with
the self-report ratings of each task to create an overall
job complexity score for each participant (a¼:80).
Performance: Performance was acquired through
manager ratings. Managers of each participant were
asked to rate performance in the last 6 months on a 10-
point scale ranging from ‘‘Poor’’ to ‘‘Outstanding’’.
Ratings were made for each participant’s overall
performance as well as their performance on each of
their three nominated tasks. As with task complexity,
supervisor ratings were also averaged to form an overall
task performance scale (a¼:90).
Job satisfaction: Overall job satisfaction was mea-
sured with items taken from the general satisfaction
scale of the Job Diagnostic Survey (Hackman &
Oldham, 1975). Five items were averaged to form
an index of job satisfaction (a¼:80). Items were
answered on a seven-point scale ranging from ‘‘Strongly
Disagree’’ to ‘‘Strongly Agree.’’ A sample item is
‘‘Generally speaking, I am very satisfied with this
job’’, with a high score indicating a high degree of
satisfaction.
3. Results
A series of hierarchical linear regression analyses were
performed examining the relationship between expected
predictors (stimulus screening ability, inhibitory ability,
perceived privacy, and task complexity), and the
dependent variables (task performance, and job satisfac-
tion). Perceived privacy, task complexity, and stimulus
screening/inhibitory ability were expected to interact to
affect performance and satisfaction. These predictions
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A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229224
were assessed with moderated regression analyses (see
Baron & Kenny, 1986).
3.1. Preliminary analyses
All 109 participants returned complete data. How-
ever, managers returned only 86 performance ratings.
Therefore, the analyses involving task performance as a
dependent variable were restricted to a sample size of 86.
Initial analyses examined whether any demographic
characteristics of the sample impacted on the dependent
variables. Task performance and job satisfaction were
therefore regressed onto sample characteristics (gender,
age, education level and tenure). Results indicated that no
sample characteristic significantly predicted any of the
dependent variables (p’s4:20 for all predictors). Conse-
quently, they were not included in further analyses.
Preliminary analyses also examined whether the
location of each participant’s workplace (i.e. Municipal
Council versus architecture firm) influenced responses
on any of the measures included in the analyses.
Analysis of variance was used to identify any workplace
location effects. This analysis revealed that participants
from the architecture firm had significantly higher
ratings on perceived privacy, task complexity, and job
satisfaction (Fð1;108Þ¼14:99, 7.85, and 4.47, respec-
tively; po:01, .01, and .05, respectively). These findings
indicate that the workplace location influenced both
independent and dependent variables and may conse-
quently influence analyses involving these variables.
Workplace location was therefore included as a pre-
dictor variable in the relevant analyses to ensure that
location effects were controlled.
Tables 2 and 3 show the means, standard deviations,
and intercorrelations of all measures.
Stimulus screening: Stimulus screening ability was
correlated with performance and job satisfaction in-
dicating that employees with better screening ability
have higher performance and job satisfaction.
Inhibitory ability: It was proposed that inhibitory
ability might mediate the effect of stimulus screening on
employees’ reactions to open office spaces. For media-
tion to emerge the independent variable and the
mediator must be correlated (Baron & Kenny, 1986).
The fact that no correlation emerged between stimulus
screening and the Stroop task indicates that inhibitory
ability is distinct from stimulus screening, and thus may
play an independent role in predicting employee
reactions to their workspace. This possibility is exam-
ined in the regression analyses presented below.
The Stroop task was correlated with perceived
privacy, suggesting that employees who are better able
to inhibit distractions within their environment also
perceive their workplace as more private.
Perceived privacy: No relationship emerged between
privacy and task performance or job satisfaction.
Task complexity: Task complexity was not signifi-
cantly correlated with any of the measures (except
location, discussed previously).
Objective privacy: Consistent with the prediction that
employees would respond in a variety of different ways
to the objective privacy provided by the workplace, the
only correlation between objective measures of privacy
and perceived privacy was the height of the partitions.
Employees who had high partitions reported greater
levels of perceived privacy. All other objective measures
of privacy (i.e. number of partitions, interpersonal
distance, and density) were not correlated with perceived
privacy.
3.2. Moderated regression analyses
Hierarchical linear regression analyses were con-
ducted to examine the higher order interactions (see
ARTICLE IN PRESS
Table 2
Intercorrelations between measures
Mean Standard deviation 1 2 3 4 5 6
1. Perceived privacy 2.91 1.13
2. Stroop .61 .30 .21*
3. Stimulus screening 4.12 .87 .06 .02
4. Task complexity 3.29 .57 .10 .17 .05
5. Task performance 7.60 1.00 .09 .11 .56* .10
6. Job satisfaction 4.83 1.08 .09 .17 .23* .07 .01
7. Location .26* .03 .04 .35** .02 .20*
*pp:05, **po:01.
Table 3
Intercorrelations between privacy measures
12 34
1. Perceived privacy
2. # of partitions .10
3. Height of partitions .23* .46**
4. # of employees in 5 m radius .02 .56** .14
5. Physical distance between coworkers .13 .39** .16 .31**
*pp:05, **pp:001.
A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229 225
Aiken & West, 1991). The first step was to enter the
main effects into the model. In order to avoid possible
multi-colinearity, all variables were centered prior to
creating the interaction terms (see Aiken & West, 1991)
that were entered in step two. Finally, the three-way
interactions were entered in step 3. This procedure was
conducted separately for stimulus screening and inhibi-
tory ability. The significant outcomes are discussed
below.
1
Interactions were interpreted according to the
procedures offered by Aiken and West (1991), in which
the simple slopes were estimated at one standard
deviation above and below the mean for the variables
in the interaction term. These ‘‘high’’ and ‘‘low’’ values
were then tested for significance to determine the shape
of the interaction.
Main effects: Stimulus screening ability significantly
predicted task performance (b¼:30, po:05). These
results confirm previous findings that individuals with
poor stimulus screening ability demonstrate lower
performance than other workers.
Perceived privacy, task complexity and inhibitory
ability: A significant interaction emerged between
perceived privacy, task complexity and inhibitory ability
for job satisfaction (b¼:24, po:05). All other interac-
tions were nonsignificant (all p’s4.30). Following Aiken
and West (1991), further analyses revealed that the effect
of the Stroop on job satisfaction was significant only
when perceived privacy was low and task complexity
was high (b¼:62, po:05). These results confirm the
hypothesis that when perceived privacy is low and task
complexity is high, people with weak inhibitory ability
have lower job satisfaction than people with strong
inhibitory ability. Contrary to predictions, interaction
effects were not evident for performance.
Perceived privacy, task complexity and stimulus screen-
ing ability: Akin to the results for inhibitory ability, a
significant interaction effect emerged between perceived
privacy, task complexity and stimulus screening ability
only for job satisfaction (b¼:32, po:05; all other
p’s4.50). The effect of stimulus screening was signifi-
cant only when perceived privacy and task complexity
were high (b¼:73, po:01; all other p’s4:10). This
result indicates that poor stimulus screening leads to
lower job satisfaction only when perceived privacy is
high and task complexity is high. This relationship is
contrary to the hypothesis that stimulus screening would
have its strongest effect when privacy is low rather than
high. It seems that the higher partitions may provide
visual privacy but may fail to block the noise inherent to
an open office plan, thereby leading to even greater
problems for some workers by suggesting privacy that is
not achieved.
4. Discussion
The goal of this study was to identify the moderating
effects of inhibitory ability, stimulus screening, per-
ceived privacy, and task complexity on the satisfaction
and performance of employees working in open-plan
work environments. These factors were found to interact
in predicting employees’ job satisfaction, providing
partial confirmation of hypotheses. In particular,
although the relationship among these factors was
varied, both poor inhibitory ability and stimulus
screening consistently led to lower levels of employee
satisfaction. The hypothesized interactions, however,
were not evident for performance, suggesting that the
interaction of these variables primarily promotes an
affective rather than behavioral response. Furthermore,
the nature of these interaction effects was not always
consistent with expectations.
As predicted, inhibitory ability interacted with task
complexity and perceived privacy to impact employee
satisfaction. Results were consistent with the hypothesis
that when individuals had low perceived privacy and
were required to execute highly complex tasks, those
with poor inhibitory ability would report low job
satisfaction. This finding suggests that ability to inhibit
distractions enables individuals working in complex jobs
with low levels of privacy to avoid overstimulation from
numerous sources of interference in open-plan offices,
resulting in a more positive affective response to the job.
Stimulus screening also combined with perceived
privacy and task complexity to influence job satisfac-
tion, but here the results were inconsistent with
predictions. Poor screening led to lower satisfaction
when privacy and task complexity were high, rather
than when task complexity was high but privacy was low
as was predicted. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the
ability to block out distractions apparently influenced
employees’ affective responses to the workplace only
when the workplace was perceived to be less intrusive. It
seems that higher partitions provide visual privacy but
do not effectively block sound transmission. It is
possible that the noise is more intrusive when employees
do not have the visual cues to determine the locus of the
noise. Alternatively, this finding supports the proposal
by proponents of the open-plan design that the
increased communication and social interaction inherent
to the design increases employee satisfaction and morale
(Bach, 1965;Brennan et al., 2002;Dean, 1977), rather
than leading to overstimulation.
These results have important implications for open-
plan design research. Not only did the findings confirm
that stimulus screening ability is an important factor in
determining an individual’s ability to cope with the
distractions inherent to the open-plan environment (e.g.
Baum et al., 1982;Mehrabian, 1977;Oldham, 1988;
Oldham et al., 1991), but the results also suggest that
ARTICLE IN PRESS
1
The main effect between the Stroop task and job satisfaction is not
reviewed because it is qualified by the higher order interactions.
A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229226
inhibitory ability is an equally crucial factor. Further,
the effect of inhibitory ability was independent of any
influence of stimulus screening, indicating that these two
measures may be tapping into different mechanisms for
coping with overstimulating environments. The evidence
indicated that the tendency to become overaroused
(assessed by the Stimulus Screening Scale, Mehrabian,
1977) and the ability to inhibit irrelevant stimuli led to
separate independent affective responses to the work-
place design. At the same time, both concepts are
theoretically similar, each referring to an ability to filter
numerous stimuli to reduce the possibility of cognitive
(and perhaps affective) overload. These points highlight
an important direction for future research: inhibitory
ability needs to be further examined as a determinant of
employee’s attitudinal and behavioral responses to the
open-plan design, possibly independent of stimulus
screening. In considering the role of inhibitory ability,
however, it is important to recognize that different
inhibitory mechanisms may be involved in the inhibition
of different types of stimulation. Individuals’ inhibitory
ability differs across the domains of memory, conscious
attention and reading comprehension (Gaultney, Kipp,
Weinstein, & McNeill, 1999), suggesting that a different
process is used to inhibit each of these stimuli. Further,
different measures of inhibitory ability are often found
to be uncorrelated (e.g. the Wisconsin Card Sorting
Task and the distracting-text task from Connelly et al.
(1991); see Kramer, Humphrey, Larish, & Logan, 1994),
suggesting that there are different processes being
measured by each task. There are many different sources
of distraction in the open-plan office, all potentially
impacting at the same time, and the Stroop task
probably was not measuring inhibition of all of the
relevant types of stimulation.
To measure the impact of inhibitory ability on
employee reactions to such an environment, the
researcher must first identify the types of stimuli that
require inhibition and then find ways of measuring
such inhibition processes. Typologies of inhibitory
functioning have been offered in the literature (see
Yoon, May, & Hasher, 2000), and a closer mapping of
these inhibitory measures to the specifics of the work-
place environment might reveal a stronger role for
inhibitory ability than was documented in the current
research.
4.1. Limitations of the present study
One important problem worth noting in the current
research was the lack of variance on performance
measures provided by managers. This restricted range
may in part account for the lack of findings in this study
regarding performance. Future research might address
this problem by obtaining more objective indicators of
job performance.
A second limitation of this study concerns measures
of task complexity. The job descriptions provided by the
organizations did not include comprehensive descrip-
tions of the tasks that each employee’s job entailed and
thus complexity could not be evaluated in a very
thorough manner. In an ideal situation a full job
analysis would have been conducted to allow an
objective evaluation of job complexity, for example via
the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (US Department of
Labor, 1991). Because organizational restraints did not
allow for this possibility, complexity ratings were based
upon employees’ self-reported ratings as well as the
relatively broad categorizations provided by Hedge
(1982). Also, because jobs in this study generally ranged
from a technical level upwards, there was some
restriction in range of task complexity. Both of these
issues may have reduced the probability of substantial
findings regarding task complexity. Future studies
should attempt to gain more objective and detailed
measures, as well as a wider range of complexity, to
achieve greater understanding of the role of task
complexity in reactions to workplace design.
A third limitation of this study is the lack of
incorporation of tactics that employees develop to avoid
the distractions inherent in their open-plan workspace.
Numerous employees mentioned that they and their
colleagues frequently engage in behavioral techniques to
minimize disruption to their work, such as relocation to
dedicated quiet spaces or using headphones to block out
noise. The fact that employees use these tactics indicates
both that employees are highly aware of the distractions
inherent to the workplace environment and that they
actively avoid these distractions to ensure completion of
their work. Failure to systematically consider the effect of
these actions on employees’ responses to the workplace
environment meant that some effects of workplace design
on employee attitudes and behavior may have been
masked. For example, employees may perform their tasks
well despite their poor ability to inhibit distractions and
low levels of privacy because they take important work
elsewhere if they are having difficulty completing it. These
observations indicate that future studies should consider
the actions employees take to limit their exposure to the
distractions inherent to their workplace.
Finally, it should be noted that this study does not
rule out the possibility that stimulus screening is equally
important in a closed office environment. This possibi-
lity seems unlikely given that employees in open offices
are more susceptible to noises and uncontrollable
distractions (Sundstrom et al., 1980). Nonetheless, the
organizations that participated in this research had very
few closed offices, not allowing for comparisons to be
made between closed and open office layouts. Indeed,
many organizations today are increasingly turning to
the open plan layout, even for their most senior
employees (Hymowitz, 1998).
ARTICLE IN PRESS
A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219–229 227
4.2. Practical implications and future research
This study indicates that inhibitory ability, stimulus
screening, perceived privacy and task complexity inter-
act in determining employees’ affective responses to the
open-plan work environment. These findings support
previous research indicating that employees react
negatively to open-plan office designs, particularly if
they feel crowded and their work requires high levels of
concentration (e.g. Oldham & Brass, 1979). More
importantly, however, this study has provided evidence
that the ability to block out distracting stimuli and
selectively attend to relevant information plays a
fundamental role in employee satisfaction.
This finding has implications for workplace design.
First, the fact that inhibitory ability was found to impact
on reactions to the workplace design suggests that
further research is necessary to confirm and expand
these findings. Also, due to the complexity of measuring
inhibition, additional research is needed to determine
which mechanisms of inhibition are relevant to the
workplace and how best to measure them. Second, once
the nature and impact of inhibitory ability in the
workplace has been more clearly delineated, a number
of questions relevant to workplace design and organiza-
tional performance and morale can be addressed. For
example: Can employees be taught to enhance their
inhibitory ability? Which particular stimuli prove most
distracting in the workplace, and to whom? Which
mechanisms of inhibition can be used to effectively
reduce these distractions? Do employees need to be
given strategies to avoid distractions? Are private work
areas necessary in open-plan offices to help people who
are poor inhibitors avoid distractions? The informal
observations that employees were intentionally addres-
sing workplace distractions, in combination with the
empirical findings regarding inhibitory ability and
stimulus screening, suggest that these are important
questions for future research.
In conclusion, this study has identified the importance
of employee perceptions, task characteristics, and the
ability to inhibit distractions in enabling an individual to
cope with the overstimulation inherent to the open-plan
workplace. Inhibitory processes are acknowledged as
playing a fundamental role in an individual’s ability to
effectively function in their environment, and they
appear to influence employees’ affective response to
their workplace.
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Optimizing employee psychological well-being is a must for an organization, so it has become a major concern gaining more importance in organizational disciplines nowadays. However, a gap is found in the extant literature between the ideal condition and the practical level of the employee's workplace well-being. The open office work environment is a novel concept in Sri Lanka and its effects on employee psychological well-being have not been well addressed yet. Hence, the current study attempts to assess the impact of an open office work environment on employees' psychological well-being with special reference to the banking industry in Sri Lanka. The study was quantitative in which a cross-sectional survey design was followed. A simple random sampling technique was applied, and the final sample consisted of 316 executive-level employees selected from three licensed commercial banks in Sri Lanka. Primary data was collected via a standard measurement scale, and the analysis was done with the aid of SPSS employing correlation and regression analysis techniques. Findings reveal a significant impact of the open office work environment on employees' psychological well-being in the banking industry of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, it is concluded that an open office work environment improves the overall psychological well-being of employees due to advantages like allowing them to easily communicate with each other. It is suggested that to maximize the effectiveness of open offices further, organizations can take more initiatives to enhance the level of collaboration, manage the noise level, and increase the level of privacy in the work environment.
... Task 2 aims to mock up the scene that student researchers concentrate on their works while daily distractions occur suddenly, which allows users to interactively experience different work environments and further evaluate their pros and cons. In this task, participants are required to sit in front of their computers and complete the Stroop test, which is identified as a proper activity to reflect the daily research work since they both require high attention from individuals (Maher and von Hippel 2005). During the Stroop test, participants can follow the instructions and name the color of the word line by line. ...
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