We have all experienced how the working environment affects our mood, well-being and the quality of the work we do. But what is fact and what is myth?

In his dissertation, Aram Seddigh investigates how office type, health and performance are interrelated – and the answers are not always what we might expect.

More and more of us spend our days in office environments, which also means that more and more of us have experience and views about how we feel and function in different types of workplace.

Some of us think having our own room is best, others feel most comfortable in an open landscape, while a third group have adopted the flexible office.

But it’s one thing to think and guess, and another to measure in which environments we actually do feel best and work best. This is exactly what Aram Seddigh did in his doctoral dissertation ’Office type, performance and well-being’, submitted to the Department of Psychology of Stockholm University. In the dissertation he investigates how office types affect employees’ health and performance, and whether such effects are in their turn influenced by an employee’s personality and the type of work task.

“The results show that the difference between how we feel and perform in different types of office is not the same as many people think, and in certain cases the difference is much smaller,” says Seddigh.

THE MYTH THAT HAVING YOUR OWN ROOM IS BEST

The dissertation is based on data from six organisations and 3,000 people working in cubicle offices, office landscapes and flexi-offices. This is a larger and broader investigation than those previously done in this area.

“I used questionnaire responses and cognitive tests, which enabled me both to investigate how the people perceive their working environment and to test how it really affects them. Working with objective facts, as I did, mean that my results differ somewhat from those that have emerged from previous research,” says Seddigh.

So what are the results, then? When people themselves are asked to say how they feel, the ones who have their own room usually claim to have the best health, followed by those in flexi-offices, while those who work in open office landscapes express the most problems. But if we look deeper into the material, it turns out to be not quite so simple. When we look at objective data, it is not so obvious that those who sit in cubicle offices always perform best.

“Many people believe that having their own room is always best for them, but when we measure the reality, the difference compared with other office types isn’t so great. Cognitive tests of memory even show that employees who sit in cubicle offices are most affected by distractions, while people in small or medium-sized office landscapes manage significantly better. Perhaps this because they have learned to concentrate despite being distracted, or because individual offices are not being used correctly.”

INVESTIGATING GREATER FLEXIBILITY

If we were hoping for an unambiguous answer, then, we have to accept that the reality is not always so simple. Even if it is possible to identify certain patterns, there is no single type of office which is always best. Different solutions bring different challenges, and Aram Seddigh’s advice is that workplaces should be designed in line with the characteristics of each individual organisation.

“Nowadays, office design is less to do with furnishing and more to do with a holistic perspective on the processes and working methods in an organisation. For a company like Kinnarps, this may mean investigating how their products are really used in workplaces, and continuing to work closely with their customers.”

Aram Seddigh’s continued research is now focusing on investigating how flexible and activity-based offices affect us. He states that the large-scale historical trends have been moving for a long time in the direction of more flexible ways of living and working, and this development is only going to continue.

“The freedom of choice that the activity-based office creates can be positive for employees. It can give them a sense of control which, in turn, can lead to better well-being and more effective work. But increased freedom of choice also puts new demands on self-leadership in the organisation. In the transition from individual rooms to an activity-based office, for example, management must create a good transformation process where the employees are involved and can participate. This is a sure way of contributing to both health and performance.”

Aram Seddigh is active in the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University and runs the company WeOffice, which offers change management services – you can read more at www.weoffice.se. He also blogs at www.kontorsforskning.se where you can also download his dissertation.