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ARTICLE IN PRESS0272-4944/$ - sedoi:10.1016/j.jeCorrespondE-mail addrJournal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) differences in employee reactions to open-plan officesAlena Maher, Courtney von HippelSchool of Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, AustraliaAvailable online 15 August 2005AbstractThis study examined the independent and joint influences of stimulus screening, inhibitory ability, perceived privacy and taskcomplexity on the satisfaction and performance of employees working in open-plan offices. One hundred and nine participants fromtwo 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 stimulusscreening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy, or complex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact toproduce employees negative reactions were also partially confirmed. Importantly, results verify stimulus screening as a significantdeterminant of employees reactions to the open-plan workplace. Implications for understanding employees attitudinal andbehavioral responses to the workplace, limitations of the study, and implications for future research are discussed.r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.1. IntroductionResearch has consistently demonstrated that charac-teristics of the office environment can have a significanteffect on behavior, perceptions, and productivity ofworkers (e.g. Altman & Lett, 1969; Oldham &Rotchford, 1983; Woods & Canter, 1970). Workplacecharacteristics such as noise, lighting conditions, and theamount of space available per employee can contributeto 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 environmentthat contributes to such employee behavior is the layoutof office space. Conventional workplace designs tend toprovide closed, private offices for employees. Incontrast, the more contemporary open-plan design ischaracterized by an absence of floor-to-ceiling walls ande front matter r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.nvp.2005.05.002ing author. Tel.: +612 9385 3017.ess: (C. von Hippel).internal boundaries, as illustrated by cubicles or parti-tioned workspaces (Zalesny & Farace, 1987). Both openand closed offices have featured in studies addressing therelationship 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; ONeill, 1994; Sundstrom et al.,1980, 1982; Wineman, 1986). The open-plan officedesign in particular has received attention in currentresearch. Its popularity as a workplace design hasincreased substantially (Krekhovetsky, 2003; The Econ-omist, 1998), prompting researchers to question thevalue it offers to the employee and the organization incomparison to traditional designs. The current researchexamines the open-plan office design and employeesreactions to this working environment.1.1. The impact of the open-plan office design onemployee behavior and attitudesProponents of the open-plan office suggest that theopen plan creates flexible space, allowing for a IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229220in set-up and renovation times. It also enables theaccommodation of greater numbers of employees inreduced amounts of space (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline,2002; Zeitlin, 1969). As a result the total office spacerequired is reduced and organizations save on airconditioning, maintenance and building costs. Suppor-ters of the open-plan design also claim that the designfacilitates communication and increases interactionbetween employees, and as a result improves employeesatisfaction, morale and productivity (Bach, 1965;Brennan et al., 2002; Dean, 1977; Oldham, 1988).Indeed, some evidence exists to support these positiveeffects. Open-plan offices have led to increased commu-nication among coworkers (Allen & Gerstberger, 1973;Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Zahn, 1991), higheraesthetic judgements, and more group sociability thanmore conventional designs (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972). Itis not surprising then that many contemporary work-places have adopted this design to decrease costs andincrease employee performance.There is research, however, indicating that thepurported benefits of the open-plan design are accom-panied by important costs as well. For example, open-plan offices have been linked to increased workplacenoise (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Sundstrom et al., 1980;Zalesny & Farace, 1987), increased disturbances anddistractions (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Clearwater,1979; Hedge, 1982; Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Old-ham & Brass, 1979; Sundstrom et al., 1980), increasedfeelings of crowding (Sundstrom et al., 1980), and loss ofprivacy (Boyce, 1974; Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Clear-water, 1979; Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Hedge, 1982;Sundstrom et al., 1980). Further, researchers haveobserved that these negative outcomes of the designtend to result in dissatisfaction with both work and theworkplace (Marans & Yan, 1989; Oldham & Brass,1979; Spreckelmeyer, 1993), reduced functional effi-ciency (Brookes & Kaplan, 1972), and decreasedperformance (Becker et al., 1983; Oldham & Brass,1979). Thus it appears that although the reduction inspace and increased communication are reputed to bebenefits of the open-plan design, this design may alsoinduce negative reactions from the individuals occupy-ing such workspaces.1.2. The influence of space in the workplaceThe contrary findings regarding the influence of open-plan office designs have brought researchers to considerwhich characteristics of the design specifically contributeto its negative versus positive effects. The evidenceresulting from such research consistently indicates that itis the inherent loss of space and increased contact withcoworkers that appear to drive the negative behavioraland attitudinal responses of employees (Desor, 1972;Hundert & Greenfield, 1969; Oldham & Rotchford,1983; Sundstrom et al., 1980). The open-plan office hasexposed workspaces (few walls or partitions) and placesemployees in close proximity to coworkers. Conse-quently, employees find it difficult to avoid interpersonalcontact or maintain privacy. Different frameworks havebeen adopted by researchers to explain this negativeimpact of crowding or excessive social interaction inoffice designs. Of these approaches, overstimulationtheory (e.g. Oldham, 1988) provides a particularly usefulbasis for understanding the impact of crowded officespace. According to this theory, the combination ofexcessive social interaction and small amounts ofpersonal space characteristic of the design exposesemployees to overstimulation (Desor, 1972; Paulus,1980). Overstimulation generally evokes a negativeresponse from individuals, both behaviorally andattitudinally, and in the workplace this likely results inemployee dissatisfaction and withdrawal (Oldham,1988; Paulus, 1980).Empirical research supports the theory of over-stimulation as a partial explanation of the negativeeffect of the open-plan office. Employees prefer lowlevels of spatial density, high levels of privacy, and agreater amount of architectural privacy (enclosures) intheir workplace (Oldham, 1988; Oldham & Rotchford,1983; Sundstrom et al., 1980). They seek minimizationof unwanted intrusions and potential sources ofexcessive stimulation in their workspace, and accord-ingly are dissatisfied when the open-plan design does notallow for these desired working conditions (Oldham &Rotchford, 1983).1.3. Individual differences in overstimulationWhile much of the research on open-plan design hasexamined why particular characteristics of the designhave a negative rather than positive influence, research-ers have also considered whether individual differencesmay also contribute to the variation in the impact of thedesign. Empirical evidence confirms that the severity ofemployees negative reactions indeed differs from personto person (Wineman, 1986); some individuals appearbetter able than others to cope with the excessivestimulation inherent to the open-plan office environ-ment. Mehrabian (1977) proposed that such individualdifferences in coping are due to an ability he labelsstimulus screening. He distinguishes between screeners,who effectively reduce overstimulation by attending toinformation on a priority basis, and nonscreeners, whodo not (or cannot) apply this approach and tend tobecome overstimulated.Consistent with Mehrabians hypothesis, screeners areless affected by crowding and spatial density thannonscreeners (Baum, Calesnick, Davis, & Gatchel,1982; Mehrabian, 1977; Oldham, 1988). Additionally,the evidence suggests that screeners appear to effectivelyARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 221reduce the stress of numerous stimuli whereas non-screeners tend to become overaroused by the samestimuli and as a result report more negative attitudinalresponses toward the environment (Mehrabian, 1977;Oldham, Kulik, & Stepina, 1991).1.4. The role of inhibitory abilityEvidence in support of Mehrabians (1977) concept ofscreening ability highlights a crucial factor in effectiveworkplace performance: the ability to effectively blockexcessive stimulation to concentrate on the relevantinformation at hand. The processes underlying theselective attention required for such concentration havebeen the focus of substantial cognitive research, whichidentifies inhibition of distractions as playing a crucialrole in selective attention (Dempster, 1991). Selectiveattention 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 particularstimulus within a dynamic environment an individualmust attend to relevant information and inhibit orsuppress irrelevant information that is also present.Effective inhibition allows the individual to avoidsimultaneous processing of many competing stimuli.Inhibition is crucial to the individuals capacity toconcentrate in a distracting environment as it reducesthe likelihood that overstimulation will occur and thusallows the individual to effectively process the situation(Dempster, 1991).Like most cognitive skills, the ability to inhibitinformation differs between various types of individuals.For example, individuals with schizophrenia, attentiondeficit disorder, obsessive behavior and individuals highin cognitive failures have demonstrated reduced cogni-tive inhibition (Beech, Powell, McWilliams, & Claridge,1989; Tipper, 1992). Similarly, older adults displaypoorer 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 inhibitoryability there is considerable evidence to suggest thatthere are individual differences in the inhibitory abilityof normal adults (Conway, Cowan, & Bunting, 2001;Hasher & Zacks, 1988; Rosen & Engle, 1997). Forexample, normal adults show reliable and stabledifferences in their ability on selective attention tasks(e.g. the Stroop test) due to variations in the ability toinhibit distractions (Tipper & Baylis, 1987). Harnishfe-ger and Bjorklund (1994) also propose that individualdifferences in inhibition are associated with differencesin performance in a wide range of tasks and abilities,including reading ability and creativity. Because theability to inhibit irrelevant information lessens thelikelihood of one becoming overstimulated in highlydistracting situations (Dempster, 1991), it is feasible thatinhibitory ability influences an individuals ability tocope in such an environment. This research examines thepossibility that inhibitory ability may be the cognitivemechanism through which stimulus screening exerts itsimpact. Thus, whereas stimulus screening representsindividuals self-report of how well they cope in astimulating environment, inhibitory ability may repre-sent the underlying cognitive ability that allows indivi-duals to effectively screen out distractions inherent in astimulating environment.According to this logic, a significant determinant ofan employees reaction to and performance in theworkplace may be the ability to screen out or inhibitdistracting or irrelevant information. This is particularlytrue of an open-plan office, in which distractions andoverstimulation are intrinsically linked to the design.Individuals with poor inhibitory ability are less capableof suppressing distractions (Connelly et al., 1991) andthus are more likely to be disrupted by the over-stimulation commonly experienced in open-plan offices(Desor, 1972; Paulus, 1980). As a result, negativeattitudinal and behavioral reactions of employees inopen-plan offices may be moderated by their inhibitoryability.This hypothesis, however, does not specify the preciserelationship between stimulus screening and inhibitoryability. It may be that inhibitory ability serves as amediator between stimulus screening and employeesreactions to the open plan offices. In such a manner,inhibitory ability may be the cognitive mechanism thatdifferentiates a good screener from a poor screener.Alternatively, inhibitory ability may enable people toengage in stimulus screening, but their self-report ofstimulus screening may be primarily driven by affect orarousal rather than cognitive responses to overstimulat-ing environments. According to this latter possibility,inhibitory ability may exert an independent influencefrom stimulus screening in predicting employees reac-tions to open plan offices. These competing relationshipsbetween inhibitory ability and stimulus screening will beexplored in this paper.1.5. The role of task complexity in the open-office designThe workplace design and an individuals stimulusscreening appear to be capable of affecting workperformance in an open-plan office, but the extent towhich either effects employee behaviors and attitudesmay depend on precisely what each employee doeswithin the workplace. Different tasks require differentlevels of attention and thus different levels of concen-tration for their completion (Oldham & Fried, 1987).Indeed, task complexities have been shown to influenceARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229222how employees perform in and react to workspaces ofvarious 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 betweentask complexity and workplace environment on perfor-mance is not straight forward, however. At first blush, itseems likely that less complex tasks (e.g. such as routineor well-learned tasks) which tend to require littleconscious attention will be less likely to be affected bydistractions within the work environment. In turn, morecomplex tasks are likely to require more intenseconcentration and are thus more likely to incurperformance deficits if employees become distracted(Block & Stokes, 1989; Sundstrom et al., 1980). Incontrast, Oldham et al. (1991) suggests that simple tasksrequire little concentration to complete and thusindividuals executing such tasks tend to focus theirattention on workplace intrusions, rather than the task,and dissatisfaction ensues. In contrast, individualsexecuting complex tasks have their attention divertedtoward task completion, thus their focus on intrusionsand associated dissatisfaction are abated.Nonetheless, the bulk of the evidence suggests thatemployees with complex jobs are most influenced byopen-plan offices in terms of satisfaction, workplaceattitudes, withdrawal behaviors and performance (Block& Stokes, 1989; Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Stone, 2001;Sundstrom et al., 1980). Individuals performing highlycomplex jobs appear to be more likely to be distractedby the open-plan office, resulting in poor performanceand negative attitudes.1.6. The role of perceived privacy in the open-officedesignTwo common factors affecting privacy are limitedpersonal space and excessive unwanted interaction(Chan, 1999). Yet individuals can interpret the samesituation very differently (Kaya & Weber, 2003).Various adaptive processes and coping mechanismscan result in different subjective interpretations of thesame environment (Chan, 1999). According to Hall(1966), individuals have their own personal space which,when violated, leads them to feel crowded anduncomfortable. Thus, when infringements on personalspace intrinsic to the open-plan design exceed employ-ees comfort levels, feelings of crowding and loss ofprivacy are likely to emerge. These feelings of crowdingand loss of privacy then result in the dissatisfaction andnegative reactions displayed by employees working inopen-plan workspaces (Oldham & Rotchford, 1983).Moreover, given that perceptions of crowding appear toinfluence employees reactions to their work environ-ment, it is conceivable that the reactions of individualsin the same work environment could vary significantlydepending on individual differences in perceptions ofcrowding and privacy. This possibility will be examinedin the current study.1.7. The present studyThe literature on open-plan offices suggests thatalthough the open-plan design has been associated withthe positive effects of increased employee communica-tion and reduced office costs, this design has a negativeinfluence on employees attitudes and behavior. Theextent of this negative influence differs across indivi-duals and situations. In particular, the empiricalevidence suggests that reactions to the open-plan designare influenced by the relationship between the featuresof 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, hasnot yet examined all three of these relationshipssimultaneously, thereby enabling an assessment ofwhether all three of these variables may interact toimpact employee attitudes and behavior. This studytherefore aims to add to the literature on open-planoffice designs by investigating potential interactionbetween these variables and how they may jointlyinfluence employee reactions to the design.More specifically, the primary goal of this paper is toexamine the interactions among stimulus screening,privacy, and task complexity. If certain individuals areparticularly skilled in blocking out distractions (i.e.screeners) they may be able to effectively concentrate ontheir work regardless of the distractions evident in theworkplace. Thus, reactions to open-plan offices areexpected to be the most negative among nonscreenerswhen task complexity is high and perceptions of privacyare poor, as it is under these conditions that over-stimulation most likely occurs.Although Mehrabians concept of stimulus screeningability appears to incorporate the concept of inhibitingexcess information as a means of avoiding overstimula-tion, it does not directly measure inhibitory ability. Theself-report scale used to measure stimulus screening(Stimulus Screening Scale; Mehrabian, 1977) focuses onan individuals tendency to become overaroused whenfaced with the stress of numerous stimuli (Oldham,1988). Studies investigating the influence of screeningability on reactions to workplace design thereforeappear to be assessing the relationship between anindividuals reported ability to cope with arousal andreactions to the open-plan environment. Although theability to cope with overstimulation may be a functionof inhibitory ability, this ability is distinct from stimulusscreening, and as noted earlier, may even be independentof it. Consequently, a secondary aim of this study is toinvestigate the proposition that inhibitory ability willARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 223influence employees attitudinal and behavioral re-sponses to the open-plan design, either as a mediatorof stimulus screening or in a manner distinct from theinfluence of stimulus screening. Thus, this paper willalso examine the interactions among inhibitory ability,job complexity and perceived privacy. It is expected thatthese variables will interact in a manner similar to thepredictions expected with stimulus screening, indepen-dent of whether inhibitory ability mediates stimulusscreening effects.In all, this study aims to define the role of stimulusscreening and inhibitory ability in employees reactionsto workplace design, and then examine the combinedinfluence of inhibitory ability and stimulus screening,perceived privacy and task complexity on employeesresponses to the open-plan environment. It is expectedthat performance deficits and dissatisfaction will be thegreatest among nonscreeners/poor inhibitors, whenprivacy is low and task complexity is high.2. MethodResearch setting and participants: The research wasconducted in two workplaces in Sydney, Australiaalarge Municipal Council and an international architec-ture and design firm. Both workplaces were of an open-plan design. The number of enclosures around eachemployees workspace ranged from one to four parti-tions or walls (M 2:57, SD .71). The social density(number of employees within a 5 m radius of eachworkspace) ranged from 1 to 22 employees (M 11:77,SD 4.64), and the distance between coworkers rangedfrom 0.5 to 5m (M 1:74, SD .60).A total of 54 employees (25 males, 29 females) fromthe Municipal Council and 61 employees (39 males, 22females) from the architectural firm participated in thestudy. Six participants (three from each workplace) werefrom a nonEnglish speaking background and wereexcluded from the analysis, as some tasks in the studyinvolved timed recognition of English words. Bothsamples were comparable in terms of job levels, ageTable 1Participant characteristicsWorkplace 1 WTotal participants 51 58Males 22 38Females 29 20Job level ClericalSenior Management CEducation range High schoolgraduate school HAge 36.04 (9.56) 36Age range 2362 18Tenure (years) 4.59 (6.33) 3.Tenure range 032.50 0Note: standard deviations are in parentheses.and education of employees, and tenure within theorganization (see Table 1 for participant characteristics).Therefore, the two workplaces were combined to createa final sample of 109 participants (60 males, 49 females).Procedure: Data were collected on site by theresearcher. Prior to the commencement of the study,employees were emailed about the nature and purposeof the study and were notified of the organizationsendorsement of their participation. Employees wereinstructed to complete a consent form if they wished toparticipate. Confidential questionnaires were then ad-ministered to each participating employees desk. Thequestionnaire included items that measured screeningability, perceptions of the work environment (taskdemands and privacy), and job satisfaction. Question-naires were completed at the employees leisure and werecollected by the researcher when employees attended asession for measuring inhibitory ability.To maintain anonymity employees were each given acode number based on the position of their workplace inthe office. They were also asked to supply their positiontitle and some demographic information. All partici-pants supplied this information.After completing the questionnaire participants wereasked to complete the Stroop test to measure inhibitoryability. Participants were informed the session wouldtake 5 min of their time and would be held one-on-onewith the researcher in a site assigned by the organiza-tion. During the session the researcher checked thelocation of the participants workspace against a floorplan to ensure their code number was correct. Partici-pants were then given the instructions and informed thatthey would be timed on the reading task. Aftercompleting the session the researcher asked if theparticipant had any questions, explained that thereading task was a measure of inhibitory ability, andclarified how it related to the research project.Once all questionnaires were collected and Strooptests completed, managers were asked to completeperformance ratings for each participant. Managerswere required to assess each participants performanceon the three tasks each employee listed as the mostorkplace 2 Total1096049lericalChairman ClericalChairmanigh schoolgraduate school High schoolgraduate school.79 (15.17) 35.31 (9.49)64 186466 (5.45) 4.10 (5.87)25.33 032.50ARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229224common they performed in their job. Managers werealso asked to give an overall performance rating. Eachmanager was given a list of the tasks to rate for eachsupervisee who participated in the study. New codenumbers were allocated to each participant to ensurethat the participants responses remained anonymous.2.1. MeasuresObjective privacy: The experimenter measured variouscharacteristics of the work environment, such as thenumber and height of partitions for each employee. Thesocial density of each employees workspace was alsomeasured through the number of employees within a 5-mradius and the physical distance between coworkers.Perceived privacy: As discussed earlier, employeesperceptions of the impact the physical characteristics ofthe work environment may be more important ininfluencing reactions to the workplace than the char-acteristics themselves. Therefore perceived privacy wasincluded as a measure of employee perceptions of thework environment. Following Sundstrom et al. (1980),privacy was operationalized as perceived control overaccess to oneself. Five questionnaire items taken fromCrouch and Nimran (1989) and ONeill (1994), wereaveraged to form an index (a :71). Responses wereprovided on a seven-point scale ranging from StronglyDisagree to Strongly Agree. A sample item is Mynormal work position is private, with a high scoreindicating a high degree of perceived privacy.Stimulus screening ability: As in Oldham (1988),stimulus screening was operationalized as the degree towhich the participant is able to effectively reduce thestress of environmental stimuli. Ten items from Mehra-bians (1977) Stimulus Screening Scale were averaged toform an index (a :77). Responses were provided on aseven-point scale ranging from Strongly Disagree toStrongly Agree. A sample item is: I am stronglymoved when many things happen at once, with a highscore indicating poor screening ability.Inhibitory ability: Inhibitory ability was assessedthrough the Stroop (1935) Test. The Stroop test wasadministered to participants individually during thereading task session. It involved two color-identificationtasks. For the first task (no-inhibition required),participants were instructed to name the color of blockslisted on a page. For the second task (inhibitionrequired) participants were instructed to name the colorof the ink of a list of printed words that are also thenames of colors, but different from the color of the ink(e.g. the word blue written in red ink). Here participantshave to inhibit the word meaning (blue) in order toname the color of the ink (red). The difference in readingtimes between the color blocks and the color wordsindicates how well the participant can inhibit distrac-tions. Inhibitory ability was thus operationalized as theratio of the difference in reading times between thenondistracting and distracting task to the reading timefor the nondistracting task, with a higher ratio indicat-ing greater distraction and thus poor inhibitory ability.Stroop tasks with similar measurement parameters havebeen shown to measure inhibitory ability (e.g. West &Alain, 2000).Task complexity: The questionnaire asked partici-pants to nominate three tasks that they most commonlyperformed in their job. Participants then rated each taskon Task Attribute items constructed for this study.These items assessed, how much concentration itrequired, how readily one can be distracted from it,and how difficult the task is. Responses were given on afive-point scale ranging from Not at all to Extre-mely. Sample items include Does this task requireyour full attention? and How easily are you distractedwhen doing this task? An additional complexity ratingwas also assigned to each task by relying on thecomplexity ratings adapted from Hedge (1982). Thisscale involves five levels of complexity: routine clerical,advanced clerical, technical, advanced technical andmanagerial. The Hedge ratings were then combined withthe self-report ratings of each task to create an overalljob complexity score for each participant (a :80).Performance: Performance was acquired throughmanager ratings. Managers of each participant wereasked to rate performance in the last 6 months on a 10-point scale ranging from Poor to Outstanding.Ratings were made for each participants overallperformance as well as their performance on each oftheir three nominated tasks. As with task complexity,supervisor ratings were also averaged to form an overalltask performance scale (a :90).Job satisfaction: Overall job satisfaction was mea-sured with items taken from the general satisfactionscale of the Job Diagnostic Survey (Hackman &Oldham, 1975). Five items were averaged to forman index of job satisfaction (a :80). Items wereanswered on a seven-point scale ranging from StronglyDisagree to Strongly Agree. A sample item isGenerally speaking, I am very satisfied with thisjob, with a high score indicating a high degree ofsatisfaction.3. ResultsA series of hierarchical linear regression analyses wereperformed examining the relationship between expectedpredictors (stimulus screening ability, inhibitory ability,perceived privacy, and task complexity), and thedependent variables (task performance, and job satisfac-tion). Perceived privacy, task complexity, and stimulusscreening/inhibitory ability were expected to interact toaffect performance and satisfaction. These predictionsARTICLE IN PRESSTable 3Intercorrelations between privacy measures1 2 3 41. Perceived privacy2. # of partitions .103. Height of partitions .23* .46**4. # of employees in 5 m radius .02 .56** .145. Physical distance between coworkers .13 .39** .16 .31***pp:05, **pp:001.A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 225were assessed with moderated regression analyses (seeBaron & Kenny, 1986).3.1. Preliminary analysesAll 109 participants returned complete data. How-ever, managers returned only 86 performance ratings.Therefore, the analyses involving task performance as adependent variable were restricted to a sample size of 86.Initial analyses examined whether any demographiccharacteristics of the sample impacted on the dependentvariables. Task performance and job satisfaction weretherefore regressed onto sample characteristics (gender,age, education level and tenure). Results indicated that nosample characteristic significantly predicted any of thedependent variables (ps4:20 for all predictors). Conse-quently, they were not included in further analyses.Preliminary analyses also examined whether thelocation of each participants workplace (i.e. MunicipalCouncil versus architecture firm) influenced responseson any of the measures included in the analyses.Analysis of variance was used to identify any workplacelocation effects. This analysis revealed that participantsfrom the architecture firm had significantly higherratings on perceived privacy, task complexity, and jobsatisfaction (F 1; 108 14:99, 7.85, and 4.47, respec-tively; po:01, .01, and .05, respectively). These findingsindicate that the workplace location influenced bothindependent 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 thatlocation effects were controlled.Tables 2 and 3 show the means, standard deviations,and intercorrelations of all measures.Stimulus screening: Stimulus screening ability wascorrelated with performance and job satisfaction in-dicating that employees with better screening abilityhave higher performance and job satisfaction.Inhibitory ability: It was proposed that inhibitoryability might mediate the effect of stimulus screening onemployees reactions to open office spaces. For media-tion to emerge the independent variable and theTable 2Intercorrelations between measuresMean Standard deviation 11. Perceived privacy 2.91 1.132. Stroop .61 .30 .213. Stimulus screening 4.12 .87 .064. Task complexity 3.29 .57 .105. Task performance 7.60 1.00 .096. Job satisfaction 4.83 1.08 .097. Location .26*pp:05, **po:01.mediator must be correlated (Baron & Kenny, 1986).The fact that no correlation emerged between stimulusscreening and the Stroop task indicates that inhibitoryability is distinct from stimulus screening, and thus mayplay an independent role in predicting employeereactions to their workspace. This possibility is exam-ined in the regression analyses presented below.The Stroop task was correlated with perceivedprivacy, suggesting that employees who are better ableto inhibit distractions within their environment alsoperceive their workplace as more private.Perceived privacy: No relationship emerged betweenprivacy and task performance or job satisfaction.Task complexity: Task complexity was not signifi-cantly correlated with any of the measures (exceptlocation, discussed previously).Objective privacy: Consistent with the prediction thatemployees would respond in a variety of different waysto the objective privacy provided by the workplace, theonly correlation between objective measures of privacyand perceived privacy was the height of the partitions.Employees who had high partitions reported greaterlevels of perceived privacy. All other objective measuresof privacy (i.e. number of partitions, interpersonaldistance, and density) were not correlated with perceivedprivacy.3.2. Moderated regression analysesHierarchical linear regression analyses were con-ducted to examine the higher order interactions (see2 3 4 5 6*.02.17 .05.11 .56* .10.17 .23* .07 .01* .03 .04 .35** .02 .20*ARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229226Aiken & West, 1991). The first step was to enter themain effects into the model. In order to avoid possiblemulti-colinearity, all variables were centered prior tocreating the interaction terms (see Aiken & West, 1991)that were entered in step two. Finally, the three-wayinteractions were entered in step 3. This procedure wasconducted separately for stimulus screening and inhibi-tory ability. The significant outcomes are discussedbelow.1 Interactions were interpreted according to theprocedures offered by Aiken and West (1991), in whichthe simple slopes were estimated at one standarddeviation above and below the mean for the variablesin the interaction term. These high and low valueswere then tested for significance to determine the shapeof the interaction.Main effects: Stimulus screening ability significantlypredicted task performance (b :30, po:05). Theseresults confirm previous findings that individuals withpoor stimulus screening ability demonstrate lowerperformance than other workers.Perceived privacy, task complexity and inhibitoryability: A significant interaction emerged betweenperceived privacy, task complexity and inhibitory abilityfor job satisfaction (b :24, po:05). All other interac-tions were nonsignificant (all ps4.30). Following Aikenand West (1991), further analyses revealed that the effectof the Stroop on job satisfaction was significant onlywhen perceived privacy was low and task complexitywas high (b :62, po:05). These results confirm thehypothesis that when perceived privacy is low and taskcomplexity is high, people with weak inhibitory abilityhave lower job satisfaction than people with stronginhibitory ability. Contrary to predictions, interactioneffects were not evident for performance.Perceived privacy, task complexity and stimulus screen-ing ability: Akin to the results for inhibitory ability, asignificant interaction effect emerged between perceivedprivacy, task complexity and stimulus screening abilityonly for job satisfaction (b :32, po:05; all otherps4.50). The effect of stimulus screening was signifi-cant only when perceived privacy and task complexitywere high (b :73, po:01; all other ps4:10). Thisresult indicates that poor stimulus screening leads tolower job satisfaction only when perceived privacy ishigh and task complexity is high. This relationship iscontrary to the hypothesis that stimulus screening wouldhave its strongest effect when privacy is low rather thanhigh. It seems that the higher partitions may providevisual privacy but may fail to block the noise inherent toan open office plan, thereby leading to even greaterproblems for some workers by suggesting privacy that isnot achieved.1The main effect between the Stroop task and job satisfaction is notreviewed because it is qualified by the higher order interactions.4. DiscussionThe goal of this study was to identify the moderatingeffects of inhibitory ability, stimulus screening, per-ceived privacy, and task complexity on the satisfactionand performance of employees working in open-planwork environments. These factors were found to interactin predicting employees job satisfaction, providingpartial confirmation of hypotheses. In particular,although the relationship among these factors wasvaried, both poor inhibitory ability and stimulusscreening consistently led to lower levels of employeesatisfaction. The hypothesized interactions, however,were not evident for performance, suggesting that theinteraction of these variables primarily promotes anaffective rather than behavioral response. Furthermore,the nature of these interaction effects was not alwaysconsistent with expectations.As predicted, inhibitory ability interacted with taskcomplexity and perceived privacy to impact employeesatisfaction. Results were consistent with the hypothesisthat when individuals had low perceived privacy andwere required to execute highly complex tasks, thosewith poor inhibitory ability would report low jobsatisfaction. This finding suggests that ability to inhibitdistractions enables individuals working in complex jobswith low levels of privacy to avoid overstimulation fromnumerous sources of interference in open-plan offices,resulting in a more positive affective response to the job.Stimulus screening also combined with perceivedprivacy and task complexity to influence job satisfac-tion, but here the results were inconsistent withpredictions. Poor screening led to lower satisfactionwhen privacy and task complexity were high, ratherthan when task complexity was high but privacy was lowas was predicted. Somewhat counter-intuitively, theability to block out distractions apparently influencedemployees affective responses to the workplace onlywhen the workplace was perceived to be less intrusive. Itseems that higher partitions provide visual privacy butdo not effectively block sound transmission. It ispossible that the noise is more intrusive when employeesdo not have the visual cues to determine the locus of thenoise. Alternatively, this finding supports the proposalby proponents of the open-plan design that theincreased communication and social interaction inherentto the design increases employee satisfaction and morale(Bach, 1965; Brennan et al., 2002; Dean, 1977), ratherthan leading to overstimulation.These results have important implications for open-plan design research. Not only did the findings confirmthat stimulus screening ability is an important factor indetermining an individuals ability to cope with thedistractions 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 thatARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 227inhibitory ability is an equally crucial factor. Further,the effect of inhibitory ability was independent of anyinfluence of stimulus screening, indicating that these twomeasures may be tapping into different mechanisms forcoping with overstimulating environments. The evidenceindicated that the tendency to become overaroused(assessed by the Stimulus Screening Scale, Mehrabian,1977) and the ability to inhibit irrelevant stimuli led toseparate independent affective responses to the work-place design. At the same time, both concepts aretheoretically similar, each referring to an ability to filternumerous stimuli to reduce the possibility of cognitive(and perhaps affective) overload. These points highlightan important direction for future research: inhibitoryability needs to be further examined as a determinant ofemployees attitudinal and behavioral responses to theopen-plan design, possibly independent of stimulusscreening. In considering the role of inhibitory ability,however, it is important to recognize that differentinhibitory mechanisms may be involved in the inhibitionof different types of stimulation. Individuals inhibitoryability differs across the domains of memory, consciousattention and reading comprehension (Gaultney, Kipp,Weinstein, & McNeill, 1999), suggesting that a differentprocess is used to inhibit each of these stimuli. Further,different measures of inhibitory ability are often foundto be uncorrelated (e.g. the Wisconsin Card SortingTask and the distracting-text task from Connelly et al.(1991); see Kramer, Humphrey, Larish, & Logan, 1994),suggesting that there are different processes beingmeasured by each task. There are many different sourcesof distraction in the open-plan office, all potentiallyimpacting at the same time, and the Stroop taskprobably was not measuring inhibition of all of therelevant types of stimulation.To measure the impact of inhibitory ability onemployee reactions to such an environment, theresearcher must first identify the types of stimuli thatrequire inhibition and then find ways of measuringsuch inhibition processes. Typologies of inhibitoryfunctioning have been offered in the literature (seeYoon, May, & Hasher, 2000), and a closer mapping ofthese inhibitory measures to the specifics of the work-place environment might reveal a stronger role forinhibitory ability than was documented in the currentresearch.4.1. Limitations of the present studyOne important problem worth noting in the currentresearch was the lack of variance on performancemeasures provided by managers. This restricted rangemay in part account for the lack of findings in this studyregarding performance. Future research might addressthis problem by obtaining more objective indicators ofjob performance.A second limitation of this study concerns measuresof task complexity. The job descriptions provided by theorganizations did not include comprehensive descrip-tions of the tasks that each employees job entailed andthus complexity could not be evaluated in a verythorough manner. In an ideal situation a full jobanalysis would have been conducted to allow anobjective evaluation of job complexity, for example viathe Dictionary of Occupational Titles (US Department ofLabor, 1991). Because organizational restraints did notallow for this possibility, complexity ratings were basedupon employees self-reported ratings as well as therelatively broad categorizations provided by Hedge(1982). Also, because jobs in this study generally rangedfrom a technical level upwards, there was somerestriction in range of task complexity. Both of theseissues may have reduced the probability of substantialfindings regarding task complexity. Future studiesshould attempt to gain more objective and detailedmeasures, as well as a wider range of complexity, toachieve greater understanding of the role of taskcomplexity in reactions to workplace design.A third limitation of this study is the lack ofincorporation of tactics that employees develop to avoidthe distractions inherent in their open-plan workspace.Numerous employees mentioned that they and theircolleagues frequently engage in behavioral techniques tominimize disruption to their work, such as relocation todedicated quiet spaces or using headphones to block outnoise. The fact that employees use these tactics indicatesboth that employees are highly aware of the distractionsinherent to the workplace environment and that theyactively avoid these distractions to ensure completion oftheir work. Failure to systematically consider the effect ofthese actions on employees responses to the workplaceenvironment meant that some effects of workplace designon employee attitudes and behavior may have beenmasked. For example, employees may perform their taskswell despite their poor ability to inhibit distractions andlow levels of privacy because they take important workelsewhere if they are having difficulty completing it. Theseobservations indicate that future studies should considerthe actions employees take to limit their exposure to thedistractions inherent to their workplace.Finally, it should be noted that this study does notrule out the possibility that stimulus screening is equallyimportant in a closed office environment. This possibi-lity seems unlikely given that employees in open officesare more susceptible to noises and uncontrollabledistractions (Sundstrom et al., 1980). Nonetheless, theorganizations that participated in this research had veryfew closed offices, not allowing for comparisons to bemade between closed and open office layouts. Indeed,many organizations today are increasingly turning tothe open plan layout, even for their most senioremployees (Hymowitz, 1998).ARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 2192292284.2. Practical implications and future researchThis study indicates that inhibitory ability, stimulusscreening, perceived privacy and task complexity inter-act in determining employees affective responses to theopen-plan work environment. These findings supportprevious research indicating that employees reactnegatively to open-plan office designs, particularly ifthey feel crowded and their work requires high levels ofconcentration (e.g. Oldham & Brass, 1979). Moreimportantly, however, this study has provided evidencethat the ability to block out distracting stimuli andselectively attend to relevant information plays afundamental role in employee satisfaction.This finding has implications for workplace design.First, the fact that inhibitory ability was found to impacton reactions to the workplace design suggests thatfurther research is necessary to confirm and expandthese findings. Also, due to the complexity of measuringinhibition, additional research is needed to determinewhich mechanisms of inhibition are relevant to theworkplace and how best to measure them. Second, oncethe nature and impact of inhibitory ability in theworkplace has been more clearly delineated, a numberof questions relevant to workplace design and organiza-tional performance and morale can be addressed. Forexample: Can employees be taught to enhance theirinhibitory ability? Which particular stimuli prove mostdistracting in the workplace, and to whom? Whichmechanisms of inhibition can be used to effectivelyreduce these distractions? Do employees need to begiven strategies to avoid distractions? Are private workareas necessary in open-plan offices to help people whoare poor inhibitors avoid distractions? 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Technical report, Portof New York Authority.Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan officesIntroductionThe impact of the open-plan office design on employee behavior and attitudesThe influence of space in the workplaceIndividual differences in overstimulationThe role of inhibitory abilityThe role of task complexity in the open-office designThe role of perceived privacy in the open-office designThe present studyMethodMeasuresResultsPreliminary analysesModerated regression analysesDiscussionLimitations of the present studyPractical implications and future researchReferences


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