Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices
Jungsoo Kim, Richard de Dear
Reference: YJEVP 775
To appear in: Journal of Environmental Psychology
Received Date: 30 November 2012
Revised Date: 11 June 2013
Accepted Date: 22 June 2013
Please cite this article as: Kim, J., de Dear, R., Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication
trade-off in open-plan offices, Journal of Environmental Psychology (2013), doi: 10.1016/
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Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication
trade-off in open-plan offices
Jungsoo Kim a, *, Richard de Dear a
a Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, Wilkinson Building G04, The
University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
* Corresponding author. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone:
+61 2 9351 5927 (Jungsoo Kim)
Workspace Satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-
Open-plan office layout is commonly assumed to facilitate communication and interaction
between co-workers, promoting workplace satisfaction and team-work effectiveness. On the
other hand, open-plan layouts are widely acknowledged to be more disruptive due to
uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy. Based on the occupant survey database from Center
for the Built Environment (CBE), empirical analyses indicated that occupants assessed Indoor
Environmental Quality (IEQ) issues in different ways depending on the spatial configuration
(classified by the degree of enclosure) of their workspace. Enclosed private offices clearly
outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ, particularly in acoustics, privacy and
the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the
penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office
Indoor environmental quality (IEQ), Office layout, Open-plan, Privacy, Satisfaction, Post
Occupancy Evaluation (POE)
There exists a large body of literature looking at how physical environment influence
occupants’ perception and behaviour in office buildings. As office layout has transitioned in
recent decades from conventional private (or cellular) spatial configuration to modern open-
plan, the impacts on occupants and organizations have been extensively studied from a
variety of perspectives in disciplines as diverse as architecture, engineering, health and
In addition to tangible economic benefits of open-plan offices such as increased net
usable area, higher occupant density and ease of re-configuration (Duffy, 1992; Hedge,
1982), the open-plan office layout is believed by many to facilitate communication and
interaction between co-workers by removing internal walls, which should improve individual
work performance and organizational productivity (Brand & Smith, 2005; Kupritz, 2003).
However there is not much empirical evidence to support these widespread beliefs (Kaarlela-
Tuomaala, Helenius, Keskinen, & Hongisto, 2009; Smith-Jackson & Klein, 2009). On the
contrary, a plethora of research papers identify negative impacts of open-plan office layout on
occupants’ perception of their office environment. For example, some longitudinal survey
results have demonstrated a significant decline in workspace satisfaction (Sundstrom,
Herbert, & Brown, 1982), increased distraction and loss of privacy (Kaarlela-Tuomaala, et
al., 2009), and perceived performance decrement (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline, 2002) after
relocation of employees from enclosed workplace to open-plan or less-enclosed workplace.
Moreover, the occupants in these studies didn’t adapt or habituate to the change in spatial
layout (Brand & Smith, 2005; Brennan, et al., 2002; Virjonen, Keränen, Helenius, Hakala, &
Hongisto, 2007), and many researcher draw the causal link between declining environmental
satisfaction and deteriorating job satisfaction and productivity (Sundstrom, Town, Rice,
Osborn, & Brill, 1994; Veitch, Charles, Farley, & Newsham, 2007; Wineman, 1982). Still
other research studies attribute escalating Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms such as
distress, irritation, fatigue, headache and concentration difficulties (Klitzman & Stellman,
1989; Pejtersen, Allermann, Kristensen, & Poulsen, 2006; Witterseh, Wyon, & Clausen,
2004) to open-plan office layout.
An extensive research literature consistently identifies noise and lack of privacy as the
key sources of dissatisfaction in open-plan office layouts (Danielsson & Bodin, 2009; de
Croon, Sluiter, Kuijer, & Frings-Dresen, 2005; Hedge, 1982). Firstly, studies based on either
occupant surveys and laboratory experiment report that noise, in particular irrelevant but
audible and intelligible speech from co-workers, disturbs and negatively affects individual
performance on tasks requiring cognitive processing (Banbury & Berry, 2005; Haka et al.,
2009; Smith-Jackson & Klein, 2009; Virjonen, et al., 2007). The loss of productivity due to
noise distraction estimated by self-rated waste of working time was doubled in open-plan
offices compared to private offices, and the tasks requiring complex verbal process were
more likely to be disturbed than relatively simple or routine tasks (Haapakangas, Helenius,
Keekinen, & Hongisto, 2008). Also, Evans and Johnson (2000) argue that exposure to
uncontrollable noise can be associated with fall in task motivation. Secondly, with a reduced
degree of personal enclosure, open-plan layout often fails to isolate the occupants from
unwanted sound (i.e. sound privacy) and unwanted observation (i.e. visual privacy), resulting
in the overall feeling of loss of privacy and personal control over their workspace (Brand &
Smith, 2005; Brill, Margulis, Konar, & BOSTI, 1985; Danielsson & Bodin, 2009; O'Neill &
Carayon, 1993). Consequently, occupants experience excessive uncontrolled social contact
and interruptions due to close proximity to others and perceived loss of privacy, known as
overstimulation, which leads to occupants’ overall negative reactions toward their office
environment (Maher & von Hippel, 2005; Oldham, 1988).
Although that the absence of interior walls in open-plan office layout purportedly
improves communication within teams and, in turn, enhances employee satisfaction, the
presumption of improved workplace satisfaction is yet to be verified. Indeed, the
disadvantages of open-plan offices dominate previous research outcomes. To date there has
been no attempt at quantifying pros and cons of the open-plan office layout. Hedge (1982)
opined that the improved social climate within open-planed offices was insufficient to offset
the occupants’ negative reactions to this spatial workplace configuration, but attached no
empirical evidence to support this argument. Thus the primary objective of this paper is to
weigh up the positive impact of the purported advantages of open-plan office (i.e. interaction
between colleagues) against the negative impact of the disadvantages (i.e. noise and privacy)
in relation to occupants’ overall satisfaction with their workspace. This study also explores
how occupants’ attitude toward indoor environment changes between different office layouts
categorized depending on the degree of personal enclosure. For example, an occupant located
in a spacious private office would have different expectations or priority for Indoor
Environmental Quality (IEQ) compared to an occupant located in a dense, open-plan office.
To summarise, the research questions addressed in this paper are:
(1) Does occupant satisfaction with various IEQ factors change depending on different
(2) Does the priority of various IEQ factors (i.e. relative importance for shaping
occupants’ overall workspace satisfaction) differ between occupant groups in
different office layouts?
(3) Do the benefits such as easiness of interaction between co-workers offset the
disadvantages such as distraction by noise and loss of privacy in the open-plan office
2.1 Occupant survey database
Although the influence of the office environment on occupants has attracted inter-
disciplinary research attention over recent decades, the literature remains incoherent and
ambiguous. This is possibly the result of a failure on the part of researchers to agree on
common or standardized instruments to measure occupant ratings of their work environment
(Veitch, et al., 2007). Therefore the empirical analysis in the present paper is based on an
“industry standard” Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) database from CBE (Center for the
Built Environment) at the University of California, Berkeley. CBE’s occupant survey
questionnaire is one of the most widely used POE tool at present and is also prescribed within
the IEQ section of building rating systems such as LEED (USGBC, 2009) and in Australia,
CBE has conducted the occupant survey since 2000 and accumulated data from
buildings with various occupancy types. It was developed as a web-based survey tool
assessing the building occupants’ satisfaction ratings for various IEQ aspects including
thermal comfort, air quality, lighting, acoustics, office layout, office furnishings, cleanliness
& maintenance, and overall workspace satisfaction (Brager & Baker, 2009; Zagreus,
Huizenga, Arens, & Lehrer, 2004). The survey respondents express their satisfaction level
with each questionnaire item on the seven-point scale ranging from ‘very dissatisfied’(coded
as -3) through ‘neutral’ (coded as 0) to ‘very satisfied’ (coded as +3). Table 1 summarises the
questionnaire items used in the analysis for this study. The database also contains information
about survey participants’ demographics and the building’s characteristics such as design
features, service systems, materials and other technical aspects. CBE’s database contains
POE responses from various types of buildings including offices, hospitals, schools,
commercial, residential, industrial, etc. (Frontczak et al., 2012). Since this study focuses on
the influence of different office layouts on occupant responses, our analysis is based on the
office building subset (a total of 42,764 samples collected in 303 office buildings) of the
entire CBE database. Survey respondents’ personal characteristics such as gender, age (30 or
under, 31-50, and over 50), and type of work (administrative support, technical, professional,
and managerial) are described in Table 2.
CBE’s questionnaire classifies the office layouts into five categories, depending on
the level of personal enclosure: (1) Enclosed private office; (2) Enclosed shared office; (3)
Cubicles with high partitions (about five or more feet high); (4) Cubicles with low partitions
(lower than five feet high); and (5) Open office with no partitions or limited partitions. The
number of survey samples within each office layout category is listed in Table 3. The CBE’s
POE database does not contain a specific description of architectural or functional
characteristics, nor the number of people sharing. Danielsson and Bodins’ (2008) definitions
and descriptions of typical office layout have been superimposed on the CBE nomenclature
and are included in Table 3. Two thirds of individual responses (66.9%) are from open-plan
office layout (including cubicles with high partitions, cubicles with low partitions and open
office with no partitions or limited partitions). Among the different configurations of open-
plan offices, high-partitioned cubicle is the single most popular office configuration within
the CBE database (37.7% of the total occupants). About a quarter of the survey respondents
occupied private offices (26.6%) and a small fraction of the sample shared single-room
offices with co-workers (6.4%).
2.2 Data analysis
First, the survey respondents’ satisfaction level with each IEQ issue in Table 1 is
examined. Also the percentage of highly dissatisfied occupants, i.e. those who voted on the
bottom two ratings on the seven-point satisfaction scale, is computed. The percentage of
dissatisfied is regarded as a meaningful and practical metric in thermal comfort studies
because it can be readily interpreted as an expression of the number of potential complaints
(Fanger, 1972). Thus together with mean satisfaction score, Actual Percentage of Dissatisfied
(APD) can be used to quantitatively assess whether occupants in different office layouts
respond differently to the various IEQ aspects addressed in CBE’s questionnaire.
Second, to explore the implicit importance of various IEQ dimensions in relation to
the occupants’ overall assessment on their workspace, multiple regression analysis is
conducted with overall workspace satisfaction as the dependent variable and the remaining 15
IEQ factors in Table 1 as the independent variables. Different IEQ factors can be prioritized
based on their strength of the relationship – estimated by regression coefficients – with
overall workspace satisfaction. Therefore how relative importance of the 15 IEQ factors
differ between occupants in different office layouts can be investigated.
Last, in order to estimate positive and negative impacts of individual IEQ factors on
occupant overall satisfaction, multiple regression analysis is conducted after dividing the
survey responses into three sub-groups using dummy variables. Multiple regression with
dummy variable is a widely adopted analytical method in marketing research to estimate the
differential impact of attribute performance on overall satisfaction under two circumstances;
when an attribute is perceived to be satisfactory, and when it isn’t (e.g. Anderson & Mittal,
2000; Busacca & Padula, 2005; Matzler, Bailom, Hinterhuber, Renzl, & Pichler, 2004;
Matzler, Fuchs, & Schubert, 2004). In other words, a positive impact increasing overall
satisfaction when an attribute is performing well and a negative impact decreasing overall
satisfaction when the attribute is performing poor can be separately estimated by this
approach. This analytical method was adopted in the context of indoor environment by Kim
and de Dear (2012) to identify the asymmetric effect of various IEQ factors on occupant
workspace satisfaction. In our analysis, POE samples are divided into three sub-groups using
dummy coding (coded 0 or 1); (1) those who are highly satisfied with the IEQ factor in
question (occupants who rated their satisfaction at the top two levels, i.e. +3 and +2); (2)
those who are highly dissatisfied with the IEQ factor (occupants who rated their satisfaction
at the lowest two levels, i.e. -3 and -2); and (3) those who are indifferent to the IEQ factor
(occupants who rated their satisfaction level in the middle of the scale, i.e. -1, 0, and +1).
Then the multiple regression model enables the prediction of change in outcome (i.e. overall
workspace satisfaction) due to a unit change in the predictor from the baseline category (i.e.
from indifferent to either satisfied or dissatisfied). Thus the increase or decrease in overall
satisfaction, depending on whether an occupant is satisfied or dissatisfied with a particular
IEQ factor can be estimated. The multiple regression analysis produces two coefficients for
each of the IEQ factors: b1 for the satisfied group to measure the positive impact on overall
satisfaction (when an IEQ factor is perceived to be performing well), and b2 for the
dissatisfied group to measure the negative impact on overall dissatisfaction (when the IEQ
factor is perceived to be performing poor). The absolute value of the regression coefficients is
interpreted as the strength of each IEQ factor’s impact on occupant overall satisfaction with
workspace. In particular, a positive impact (b1) of ‘ease of interaction’ and a negative impact
(b2) of ‘visual privacy’, ‘sound privacy’ and ‘noise level’ can therefore be compared, which is
addressed in our third research question.
3.1 Satisfaction with different aspects of IEQ
Fig. 1 depicts the mean satisfaction scores for the IEQ questionnaire items, rated on
the seven-point scale within the bounds of “very dissatisfied (-3)” to “very satisfied (+3)” by
occupants in five different office layouts. Enclosed private office registered the highest
overall workspace satisfaction score, followed by enclosed shared office, then three
configurations of open-plan offices (i.e. high partitioned, low partitioned and no/limited
partitioned) with the similar average scores. Enclosed private office significantly outscored
the other office layouts across most of the IEQ factors, and their occupants rated all aspects
of IEQ positively. While some IEQ factors in private offices, such as ‘amount of light’
(+1.7), ‘amount of space’ (+1.6), ‘visual privacy’ (+2.0) and ‘ease of interaction’ (+1.7),
achieved high satisfaction scores, ‘temperature’ (+0.2) and ‘air quality’ (+0.5) remained
closed to neutral. The noticeable differences between enclosed offices and open-plan offices
appeared on ‘visual privacy’, ‘amount of space’, ‘sound privacy’ and ‘noise level’. Open-plan
offices scored considerably low in privacy, proxemics and noise distraction issues.
Particularly ‘sound privacy’ received the most negative responses from occupants of shared
room office (-0.5) and open-plan offices (high partitioned = -1.5, low partitioned = -1.5, and
no/limited partitioned = -1.1). Satisfaction with ‘visual privacy’ declined as the degree of
enclosure decreased, but ‘sound privacy’ didn’t exhibit any correspondence with the degree
of enclosure in office layout. Satisfaction with ‘ease of interaction’ was no higher in open-
plan offices than in private office. Interestingly, among three open-plan configurations,
occupants in no/limited partitioned office tend to be more satisfied with the most of IEQ
factors except ‘visual privacy’, compared to those in cubicles. In general, cubicles with high
partitions reported the lowest occupant satisfaction across 13 out of 15 of the IEQ factors.
Across all five office layouts, occupants expressed slight satisfaction (+1) with cleanliness
and maintenance issues, while thermal and air quality issues were more closed to neutral (0).
The Actual Percentage of Dissatisfied (APD) with each IEQ factor was illustrated in
Fig. 2. As a conservative approach to separate those who are significantly dissatisfied, survey
responses falling into the lowest two points on the seven-point satisfaction scale (i.e. very
dissatisfied or dissatisfied) were counted towards APD. In general, open-plan layouts
showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts. The highest
levels of IEQ dissatisfaction were reported for ‘sound privacy’; more than half of the
occupants in open-plan cubicles (59% for high partitioned cubicle and 58% for low
partitioned cubicle) and just less than half (49%) in open-plan with no/limited partitions
expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of sound privacy. ‘Temperature’, ‘noise level’
and ‘visual privacy’ were also identified as major sources of IEQ dissatisfaction going on the
APD index. APD for occupants of enclosed private office fell well below 10% on most of the
IEQ factors, but more than 20% of private office occupants expressed dissatisfaction with
their thermal environmental conditions, implying thermal discomfort is a universal source of
dissatisfaction across all five office layout configurations, regardless of privacy level. Also,
relatively higher APD scores (18%) were reported on ‘sound privacy’ in private offices, but
they performed significantly better on ‘visual privacy’ with APD dropping down to just 3%.
According to Fig. 2, thermal environmental conditions, acoustic quality and privacy are the
pervading IEQ problems in commercial buildings, scoring dissatisfaction rates in excess of
20%. In particular, APD for ‘noise level’, ‘sound privacy’ and ‘visual privacy’ tended to
increase considerably in open-plan layouts compared to private offices.
3.2 Implicit relative importance of different IEQ factors
To investigate whether the relative importance of different IEQ factors changes under
the different spatial configurations, multiple regression analysis was conducted separately on
survey responses from the five office layouts. The five survey sub-samples with 15 IEQ items
as the predictors all had high reliabilities (all Cronbach’s α = 0.89). Independence of
predictors was confirmed by Variance Inflation Factor (1.3 < VIF < 3.4, while VIF = 5 is the
threshold of multicollinearity). The five regression models explained between 63 and 65% of
the variance in outcome variable (i.e. overall workspace satisfaction). Regression coefficients
in this analysis represent the magnitude of individual IEQ factors’ influence on the
occupants’ overall workspace satisfaction, and are presented in Table 4. For example, the
IEQ factor showing the strongest relationship with occupants’ overall satisfaction was
‘amount of space’ (b = 0.21 ~ 0.24) across all five office layouts. Cleanliness and
maintenance issues had a much smaller influence on overall satisfaction (b = 0.03 ~ 0.07, or
in some cases, insignificant).
Based on the regression coefficients in Table 4, a radar chart was created in Fig. 3 to
visualise the different IEQ priorities of the five office layouts. Insignificant regression
coefficients were excluded from the chart. Both similarities and differences between each
occupant group can be noticed in Fig. 3. Regardless of office layout, the amount of space
available for individual work and storage was identified as the most significant IEQ
determinant of occupant workspace satisfaction. On the other hand, the relative importance of
some of the other IEQ factors varied between the different office layouts. Visual privacy is
the IEQ Factor that most clearly differentiates the five office layouts. That is, while visual
privacy appeared as one of the least important factors for those in private offices (b = 0.04),
its relative importance to overall office satisfaction increased as the degree of enclosure
decreased. It ranked as the second most important factor for shared room office (b = 0.13),
low partitioned (b = 0.15) and no/limited partitioned office (b = 0.16), and the third most
important factor for high partitioned office (b= 0.11). Noise level was more important for
those in open-plan offices than enclosed office occupants. Sound privacy had a relatively
lower impact on overall workspace satisfaction and showed no clear distinctions between the
five office layouts. Ease of interaction with co-workers and comfort of office furnishings
were more strongly related to overall satisfaction of occupants in private office compared to
the other office layouts. The amount of light had a bigger impact on enclosed office
occupants’ overall satisfaction than that of open-plan occupants. Some of the indoor ambient
conditions, including temperature, air quality and visual comfort, failed to register any clear
effect of degree of office enclosure.
3.3 Estimation of positive and negative impacts of IEQ factors
As described in Section 2.2, the dummy variable regression analysis conducted on
survey responses from open-plan offices (including high partitions, low partitions and no or
limited partitions) produced two regression coefficients (b1 and b2) for each IEQ factor; b1
increasing overall workspace satisfaction when the IEQ factor was perceived to be
satisfactory, and b2 decreasing overall satisfaction when the IEQ factor was perceived to be
unsatisfactory (Table 5). For example, when occupants are satisfied with the amount of space
in their individual workspace, the multiple regression model predicts a 0.41(b1) unit increase
in the overall workspace satisfaction score. When occupants are dissatisfied with the amount
of space, their overall workspace rating decreases by 0.79(b2).
One of the research aims raised in the introduction of this paper was to quantitatively
evaluate the trade-off in open plan office layouts between the positive impact of ease of
interaction between colleagues on the one hand, and the negative impact of noise and loss of
privacy on the other. According to Table 5, the positive impact (b1) of ease of interaction on
overall workspace satisfaction was 0.21, whereas the negative impacts (b2) of noise, poor
sound and visual privacy was 0.41, 0.20 and 0.46 respectively. For example, when occupants
in an open-plan office perceive that their office layout improves their interaction with co-
workers, but degrades acoustical quality, sound and visual privacy, the cons outweigh the
pros, and their overall workspace satisfaction score shows a net decrease of 0.86 units (i.e.
0.21 - 0.41 - 0.20 - 0.46 = -0.86).
According to mean satisfaction ratings (Fig. 1) and dissatisfaction rates (Fig. 2) for
the 15 IEQ factors, enclosed private offices were rated most positively of all five office
layouts. This finding corroborates generalisations from earlier research literature on this
subject (e.g. Danielsson & Bodin, 2009; Marans & Spreckelmeyer, 1982). Compared to the
high level of occupant satisfaction of enclosed private office on visual privacy (mean
satisfaction score = +2.0, APD = 3%), acoustical privacy achieved relatively poorer
assessments in the same cellular offices (mean satisfaction score = +0.6, APD = 18%),
suggesting that many private offices provide acoustical isolation below occupants’
expectations. This probably reflects the light-weight materials and expedient construction
approaches commonly used in large commercial tenancy fit-outs. Nevertheless, private
office users were generally satisfied with most of the IEQ factors, with the possible exception
of thermal environment. Achieving high levels of thermal comfort is rare, even in private
cellular offices, as indicated by relatively low satisfaction scores and significant numbers of
potential complainants (mean satisfaction score = +0.2, APD = 22%).
Even though ‘sound privacy’ were rated lower than the other IEQ factors in cellular
offices, mean scores were still slightly above the line on the satisfaction scale. In contrast,
open-plan office occupants expressed significant levels of dissatisfaction with ‘sound
privacy’ (i.e. strongly negative mean scores on the satisfaction scale). In all three formats of
open plan office the mean satisfaction scores on ‘temperature’, ‘noise level’, ‘sound privacy’,
and ‘visual privacy’ were mostly negative but ‘sound privacy’ was overwhelmingly the most
unsatisfactory IEQ factor in these offices. Also, the mean satisfaction scores for ‘amount of
space’ in all three formats of open plan office was still on the positive side, but considerably
lower compared to private office layouts. These results confirm the typically negative
evaluations of open-plan layout reported by earlier researchers, i.e. lack of privacy,
distraction by noise, feeling of crowding, uncontrolled social interactions and interruptions
(e.g. de Croon, et al., 2005; Ferguson, 1983; Kaarlela-Tuomaala, et al., 2009; Yildirim,
Akalin-Baskaya, & Celebi, 2007).
Among various sources of disturbance in open-plan offices, previous researches
consistently highlight irrelevant but intelligible speech as the main cause of deteriorating
cognitive processing (Haka, et al., 2009; Smith-Jackson & Klein, 2009; Virjonen, et al.,
2007). Our analysis also has shown that sound privacy, defined in the CBE questionnaire as
the ability to have conversations without neighbours overhearing and vice-versa, was the
most problematic IEQ issue in open-plan office configurations. Sound privacy elicited the
highest levels of IEQ dissatisfaction in open plan offices, and partitions were largely
ineffectual at ameliorating this problem. A field study by O’Neill and Carayon (1993)
demonstrated a positive relationship between the physical degree of enclosure (number and
height of partitions) and perceived privacy. Our results on visual privacy support this finding.
There was a significant decrease in dissatisfaction with the visual privacy of open plan offices
as the degree of enclosure increased from no partition, to low partition, to high partition.
However, in terms of sound privacy, the number of partitions and partition height had no
impact on occupant dissatisfaction in our analysis; partitions improve visual privacy but don’t
effectively block sound transmission between adjacent workstations. In fact, workspaces with
no or limited partitions registered higher satisfaction and lower APD for ‘sound privacy’ and
‘noise level’ than did cubicles with high or low partitions. This counterintuitive finding could
be explained by the enhanced visual connectivity of workstations without any enclosing
partitions. Empirical studies suggest that uncontrollability or unpredictability rather than the
intensity exerts the stronger influence on occupants’ perception of their acoustical
environment (Evans & Johnson, 2000; Haapakangas, et al., 2008). That is, occupants of
enclosed cubicles are partially disconnected visually from their surroundings and hence,
unable to determine the source of sounds. This visual isolation may cause ambient noise to
be more disturbing than when the sound source can be readily identified (Maher & von
The implicit importance of individual IEQ factors derived by multiple regression
models revealed subtle nuances in the POE database overlooked in the descriptive analyses
presented above. It seems that occupant satisfaction levels on a particular IEQ factor don’t
necessarily translate directly to the implicit importance of that IEQ factor on overall
workspace satisfaction. For example, ‘amount of space’ didn’t stand out on either mean
satisfaction ratings or the APD index, and yet it exerted the strongest influence on occupants’
overall assessment of their workspace (Fig. 3). This result is consistent with the findings of
previous field studies on overall workspace satisfaction and work performance (Kupritz,
2003; Marans & Spreckelmeyer, 1982). Furthermore the magnitude of impact of ‘amount of
space’ on overall workspace satisfaction significantly outweighed that of all the other IEQ
factors in this analysis, regardless of office layout or configuration. Another example is
‘sound privacy’; although a large number of occupants expressed dissatisfaction with the
sound privacy of their workspace, its impact on overall workspace satisfaction was relatively
small. Perhaps the ability to hold confidential conversations (i.e. sound privacy) is not a basic
expectation of office workers, whereas the amount of space available for individual work is
apparently an essential requirement or baseline expectation (Kim & de Dear, 2012).
Some IEQ factors such as ‘visual privacy’, ‘noise level’, ‘ease of interaction’, and
‘amount of light’ demonstrated differential impact on overall workspace satisfaction,
depending on the office layout configurations (Fig. 3). And this finding led to speculation that
IEQ attributes that are widely perceived to be poor or inferior by certain occupant groups
tend to assume greater significance for that particular group than another group of occupants
for whom the IEQ attribute in question is generally performing well. Examples from the
current analysis of CBE’s POE database include higher implicit importance of ‘visual
privacy’ and ‘noise level’ for occupants of open-plan offices, and ‘ease of interaction’ for
private cellular office occupants. In other words, acoustical issues become more important to
those who are likely to experience more frequent noise disruptions and lack of sound privacy
in open-plan offices, whereas interaction between co-workers is perceived to be more
important to those who are located in private office. Applying the same logic to other IEQ
attributes, the higher importance of ‘amount of light’ for occupants in enclosed offices can be
accounted for, because one of the architectural features of open-plan is to introduce more
daylight throughout the workspace. Consequently open-plan office occupants are more likely
to be provided with sufficient light than those in enclosed offices.
In introduction section of this paper we posed the primary research question as a
trade-off between interaction and privacy/noise in open-plan offices. The common
assumption within the commercial office building sector is that occupants in open-plan office
are more satisfied with accessibility of their colleagues and team members than their
counterparts in private office, but this hypothesis was rejected in earlier field research
(Haapakangas, et al., 2008; Kaarlela-Tuomaala, et al., 2009; Sundstrom, et al., 1982). Some
researchers speculate that open-plan actually discourages communication between colleagues
and team members due to the lack of confidentiality in that office configuration (Kupritz,
2003; Sundstrom, et al., 1982). Also, a field study by Duffy (1992) reported no relationship
between the employee interaction (as by measured frequency of face-to-face transactions)
and the level of sub-division of office layout (i.e. open-plan = low sub-division vs. cell-office
= high sub-division). Results from our analyses of the CBE POE database are consistent with
these earlier observations. In our analysis, the open-plan office occupants’ satisfaction level
with ‘ease of interaction’ was no higher than that of private office occupants (Fig. 1).
Besides, the dissatisfaction rate with ‘ease of interaction’ was very low (APD = 5~8%) across
all office configurations, suggesting that interaction is not a major issue in any type of office
configuration. For these reasons, simply linking open-plan layout to facilitation of
communication between co-workers, by extension, organizational efficiency and productivity
has scant empirical evidence supporting it. The dummy variable regression model clearly
demonstrated that positive impact of ease of interaction didn’t offset the negative impacts of
noise and privacy issues in relation to open-plan occupants’ workspace satisfaction (Table 5).
The regression model’s predicted decrements in overall workspace satisfaction due to
unsatisfactory privacy and acoustic issues were bigger than the predicted increment due to
ease of communication. Examining the association between environmental satisfaction and
productivity is beyond the scope of this paper. But considering the previous researchers’
finding that satisfaction with workspace environment is closely related to perceived
productivity (Leaman & Bordass, 2007), job satisfaction (de Croon, et al., 2005; Sundstrom,
et al., 1994) and organisational outcomes (Veitch, et al., 2007; Wineman, 1986), the open-
plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have
no basis in the research literature.
There are some limitations of this study that suggest useful avenues for future
research in the area of POE. The classification of office layouts used in our analysis is based
on the self-report by occupants. Survey respondents were asked to select one option that best
describes their workspace. Hence it didn’t capture some additional features that might have
had an effect on occupants’ spatial perception, such as spatial density, number of people
sharing, and proximity to window.
By analysing a large POE database from CBE, this study identified that survey
responses on various IEQ issues differ between different office layouts (classified as enclosed
private, enclosed shared, cubicles with high partitions, cubicles with low partitions, and open
office with no/limited partitions). In general, satisfaction level with workspace environment
was the highest for those in enclosed private offices. Significant discrepancy existed between
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assessment of their work environment was different for occupants of different office layouts.
While the amount of individual space available was identified as the most important predictor
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received higher priorities by open-plan office occupants, whereas ‘amount of light’, ‘ease of
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Fig. 1. Mean satisfaction rating (-3 = very dissatisfied, through 0 = neutral to 3 = very
satisfied) for IEQ questionnaire items by office layout configurations (Error bars = 95%
Fig. 2. Actual Percentage of Dissatisfied (APD) for IEQ questionnaire items by office layout
Fig. 3. Relative importance of IEQ factors estimated by regression coefficients in five
different office layouts
List of questionnaire items used for the analysis (from CBE occupant survey database)
Survey respondents’ personal characteristics within the CBE POE database
Number of survey responses and general characteristics of different office layouts within the
CBE POE database
Implicit importance (estimated by regression coefficients) of 15 IEQ factors in relation to
occupant overall workspace satisfaction
Positive and negative impacts of the 15 IEQ factors on open-plan office occupants’ overall
• Satisfaction with IEQ changes depending on the degree of workspace enclosure
• Occupants of different office layouts have different IEQ priorities
• Noise and privacy loss identified as the main source of workspace dissatisfaction
• Benefits of enhanced interaction didn’t offset disadvantages in open-plan offices
The authors thank Center for the Built Environment at the University of California,
Berkeley, for generously permitting our access to CBE’s occupant IEQ survey database for
this analysis. We also would like to acknowledge Monika Frontczak from International
Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy at Technical University of Denmark, for her
valuable work in organizing and formatting the database.
List of questionnaire items used for the analysis (from CBE occupant survey database)
dimensions Survey questions
comfort How satisfied are you with the temperature in your
Air quality How satisfied are you with the air quality in your
workspace (i.e. stuffy/stale air, cleanliness, odours)?
How satisfied are you with the amount of light in your
Lighting How satisfied are you with the visual comfort of the
lighting (e.g., glare, reflections, contrast)?
How satisfied are you with the noise level in your
quality How satisfied are you with the sound privacy in your
workspace (ability to have conversations without your
neighbours overhearing and vice versa)?
How satisfied are you with the amount of space available
for individual work and storage?
How satisfied are you with the level of visual privacy?
layout How satisfied are you with ease of interaction with co-
How satisfied are you with the comfort of your office
furnishings (chair, desk, computer, equipment, etc.)?
How satisfied are you with your ability to adjust your
furniture to meet your needs?
How satisfied are you with the colours and textures of
flooring, furniture and surface finishes?
How satisfied are you with general cleanliness of the
How satisfied are you with cleaning service provided for
maintenance How satisfied are you with general maintenance of the
satisfaction All things considered, how satisfied are you with your
Survey respondents’ personal characteristics within the CBE POE database
Personal characteristics Description Percentage
Age <30 years
Work category Administrative support
Number of survey responses and general characteristics of different office layouts within the CBE POE database
Office layout N % Characteristics (Danielsson & Bodin, 2008)
Enclosed private 11,381 26.6 - single room office
- most equipment and amenities are in the room
- office work is characterised by highly-concentrated and independent
Enclosed shared 2,753 6.4 - single room office shared by 2 to 3 people
- people sharing tend to have a similar work or belong to the same project
Cubicles with high partitions 16,136 37.7
Cubicles with low partitions 9,636 22.5
plan Open office with no partitions
or limited partitions 2,858 6.7
- common workspace is shared by employees
- workstations are often freely arranged in groups
- partitions are usually installed at the individual workstations to provide
Total 42,764 100.0
Implicit importance (estimated by regression coefficients) of 15 IEQ factors in relation to occupant overall
Regression coefficients (b)
Predictor Enclosed private
Cubicles with high
Cubicles with low
Open office with no or
(Constant) .07** .08** .09** .10** .14**
1. Temperature .09** .08** .06** .03** .07**
2. Air quality .07** .05** .07** .05** .03*
3. Amount of light .11** .10** .05** .06** .05*
4. Visual comfort .03** -.01 .06** .02* .05**
5. Noise level .08** .08** .13** .14** .11**
6. Sound privacy .05** .07** .05** .05** .06**
7. Amount of space .22** .24** .23** .24** .21**
8. Visual privacy .04** .13** .11** .15** .16**
9. Ease of interaction .11** .07** .07** .07** .08**
10. Comfort of furnishing .17** .07** .07** .07** .06**
11. Adjustability of furniture .02** .06** .05** .05** .04
12. Colours & textures .06** .07** .07** .10** .12**
13. Building cleanliness .03** .03 .05** .04** .01
14. Workspace cleanliness .04** .02 -.00 .01 .06**
15. Building maintenance .05** .07** .05** .04** .05*
Note: Dependent variable: Overall satisfaction with workspace. Significance level: **P<0.01, *P<0.05
Positive and negative impacts of the 15 IEQ factors on open-plan office occupants’ overall workspace satisfaction
Predictor Positive impact
(Constant = 0.40**)
1. Temperature 0.09** -0.19**
2. Air quality 0.18** -0.17**
3. Amount of light 0.16** -0.16**
4. Visual comfort 0.10** -0.16**
5. Noise level 0.23** -0.41**
6. Sound privacy 0.08** -0.20**
7. Amount of space 0.41** -0.79**
8. Visual privacy 0.21** -0.46**
9. Ease of interaction 0.21** -0.19**
10. Comfort of furnishing 0.17** -0.21**
11. Adjustability of furniture 0.12** -0.18**
12. Colours & textures 0.18** -0.28**
13. Building cleanliness 0.11** -0.10**
14. Workspace cleanliness 0.01 -0.07**
15. Building maintenance 0.14** -0.12**
Note: Dependent variable: Overall satisfaction with workspace. R2=0.61, N=28,630 (inclusive of samples from open-plan layouts, i.e.
cubicles with high partitions, cubicles with low partitions and open office with no/limited partitions). Significance level: **P<0.01, *P<0.05.