Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices

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  • Journal of Environmental Psycholog




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    drawal (Oldham & Fried, 1987), satisfaction (Block &

    contrast, the more contemporary open-plan design ischaracterized by an absence of oor-to-ceiling walls and

    research. Its popularity as a workplace design has

    1.1. The impact of the open-plan office design on

    employee behavior and attitudes

    ARTICLE IN PRESSProponents of the open-plan ofce suggest that theopen plan creates exible space, allowing for a reduction

    0272-4944/$ - see front matter r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


    Corresponding author. Tel.: +612 9385 3017.E-mail address: (C. von Hippel).Stokes, 1989; Oldham, 1988; Oldham & Brass, 1979;Sundstrom, Burt, & Kamp, 1980), and performance(Sundstrom et al., 1982; Wineman, 1986).A fundamental aspect of the workplace environment

    that contributes to such employee behavior is the layoutof ofce space. Conventional workplace designs tend toprovide closed, private ofces for employees. In

    increased 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 ofce design and employeesreactions to this working environment.1. Introduction

    Research has consistently demonstrated that charac-teristics of the ofce environment can have a signicanteffect 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-

    internal boundaries, as illustrated by cubicles or parti-tioned workspaces (Zalesny & Farace, 1987). Both openand closed ofces 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 ofcedesign in particular has received attention in currentIndividual differences in emplo

    Alena Maher, Co

    School of Psychology, University of New

    Available onli


    This study examined the independent and joint inuences o

    complexity on the satisfaction and performance of employees w

    two organizations completed questionnaires and inhibitory abi

    Results partially conrmed hypotheses that satisfaction and

    screening or poor inhibitory ability, low perceived privacy, or

    produce employees negative reactions were also partially con

    determinant of employees reactions to the open-plan work

    behavioral responses to the workplace, limitations of the study

    r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.y 25 (2005) 219229

    reactions to open-plan ofces

    ney von Hippel

    h Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia

    August 2005

    ulus screening, inhibitory ability, perceived privacy and task

    g in open-plan ofces. One hundred and nine participants from

    easures. Performance was assessed through manager ratings.

    rmance would be reduced for employees with poor stimulus

    plex tasks. Expectations that these factors would interact to

    . Importantly, results verify stimulus screening as a signicant

    . Implications for understanding employees attitudinal and

    implications for future research are discussed.

  • ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironin 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 ofce 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 ofces have led to increased commu-nication among coworkers (Allen & Gerstberger, 1973;Hundert & Greeneld, 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 the

    purported benets of the open-plan design are accom-panied by important costs as well. For example, open-plan ofces 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 & Greeneld, 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 & Greeneld, 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 ef-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 bebenets 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 workplace

    The contrary ndings regarding the inuence of open-plan ofce designs have brought researchers to considerwhich characteristics of the design specically 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;

    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of E220Hundert & Greeneld, 1969; Oldham & Rotchford,1983; Sundstrom et al., 1980). The open-plan ofce hasexposed workspaces (few walls or partitions) and placesemployees in close proximity to coworkers. Conse-quently, employees nd it difcult to avoid interpersonalcontact or maintain privacy. Different frameworks havebeen adopted by researchers to explain this negativeimpact of crowding or excessive social interaction inofce designs. Of these approaches, overstimulationtheory (e.g. Oldham, 1988) provides a particularly usefulbasis for understanding the impact of crowded ofcespace. 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 ofce. 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 dissatised when the open-plan design does notallow for these desired working conditions (Oldham &Rotchford, 1983).

    1.3. Individual differences in overstimulation

    While much of the research on open-plan design hasexamined why particular characteristics of the designhave a negative rather than positive inuence, research-ers have also considered whether individual differencesmay also contribute to the variation in the impact of thedesign. Empirical evidence conrms 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 ofce 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 are

    less affected by crowding and spatial density thannonscreeners (Baum, Calesnick, Davis, & Gatchel,1982; Mehrabian, 1977; Oldham, 1988). Additionally,

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229the evidence suggests that screeners appear to effectively

  • ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironreduce 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 ability

    Evidence 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, whichidenties 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 inhibit

    information differs between various types of individuals.For example, individuals with schizophrenia, attentiondecit 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 inhibitory

    ability 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,

    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Eincluding 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 inuences 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 signicant determinant of

    an 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 ofce, 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 ofces(Desor, 1972; Paulus, 1980). As a result, negativeattitudinal and behavioral reactions of employees inopen-plan ofces may be moderated by their inhibitoryability.This hypothesis, however, does not specify the precise

    relationship between stimulus screening and inhibitoryability. It may be that inhibitory ability serves as amediator between stimulus screening and employeesreactions to the open plan ofces. 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 inuencefrom stimulus screening in predicting employees reac-tions to open plan ofces. These competing relationshipsbetween inhibitory ability and stimulus screening will beexplored in this paper.

    1.5. The role of task complexity in the open-office design

    The workplace design and an individuals stimulusscreening appear to be capable of affecting workperformance in an open-plan ofce, 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).

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 221Indeed, task complexities have been shown to inuence

  • ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironhow 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 rst 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 decits 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 that

    employees with complex jobs are most inuenced byopen-plan ofces 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 ofce, resulting in poor performanceand negative attitudes.

    1.6. The role of perceived privacy in the open-office


    Two 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 toinuence employees reactions to their work environ-ment, it is conceivable that the reactions of individuals

    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of E222in the same work environment could vary signicantlydepending on individual differences in perceptions ofcrowding and privacy. This possibility will be examinedin the current study.

    1.7. The present study

    The literature on open-plan ofces suggests thatalthough the open-plan design has been associated withthe positive effects of increased employee communica-tion and reduced ofce costs, this design has a negativeinuence on employees attitudes and behavior. Theextent of this negative inuence differs across indivi-duals and situations. In particular, the empiricalevidence suggests that reactions to the open-plan designare inuenced 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-planofce designs by investigating potential interactionbetween these variables and how they may jointlyinuence employee reactions to the design.More specically, the primary goal of this paper is to

    examine 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 ofces 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 screening

    ability 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 inuence 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 to

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229investigate the proposition that inhibitory ability will

  • inuence employees attitudinal and behavioral re-sponses to the open-plan design, either as a mediatorof stimulus screening or in a manner distinct from theinuence 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 dene the role of stimulus

    screening and inhibitory ability in employees reactions

    A total of 54 employees (25 males, 29 females) from

    and education of employees, and tenure within theorganization (see Table 1 for participant characteristics).Therefore, the two workplaces were combined to createa nal 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 notied of the organizationsendorsement of their participation. Employees wereinstructed to complete a consent form if they wished toparticipate. Condential questionnaires were then ad-ministered to each participating employees desk. The












    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 223the Municipal Council and 61 employees (39 males, 22females) from the architectural rm 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, age

    Table 1

    Participant characteristics

    Workplace 1

    Total participants 51

    Males 22

    Females 29

    Job level ClericalSenior Management

    Education range High schoolgraduate school

    Age 36.04 (9.56)

    Age range 2362

    Tenure (years) 4.59 (6.33)

    Tenure range 032.50to workplace design, and then examine the combinedinuence of inhibitory ability and stimulus screening,perceived privacy and task complexity on employeesresponses to the open-plan environment. It is expectedthat performance decits and dissatisfaction will be thegreatest among nonscreeners/poor inhibitors, whenprivacy is low and task complexity is high.

    2. Method

    Research setting and participants: The research wasconducted in two workplaces in Sydney, Australiaalarge Municipal Council and an international architec-ture and design rm. 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 5m 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).Note: standard deviations are in parentheses.questionnaire 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 a

    code number based on the position of their workplace inthe ofce. They were also asked to supply their positiontitle and some demographic information. All partici-pants supplied this information.After completing the questionnaire participants were

    asked to complete the Stroop test to measure inhibitoryability. Participants were informed the session wouldtake 5min 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 oorplan 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, andclaried how it related to the research project.Once all questionnaires were collected and Stroop

    tests 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 most

    orkplace 2 Total




    lericalChairman ClericalChairman

    igh schoolgraduate school High schoolgraduate school

    .79 (15.17) 35.31 (9.49)

    64 1864

    66 (5.45) 4.10 (5.87)

    25.33 032.50

  • performed in their job. Participants then rated each task

    ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironcommon 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. Measures

    Objective 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 ininuencing 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-identicationtasks. For the rst 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-

    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of E224tions. Inhibitory ability was thus operationalized as theon Task Attribute items constructed for this study.These items assessed, how much concentration itrequired, how readily one can be distracted from it,and how difcult the task is. Responses were given on ave-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 ve 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 satised with thisjob, with a high score indicating a high degree ofsatisfaction.

    3. Results

    A 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 toratio 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 commonly

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229affect performance and satisfaction. These predictions

  • were assessed with moderated regression analyses (seeBaron & Kenny, 1986).

    3.1. Preliminary analyses

    All 109 participants returned complete data. How-ever, managers returned only 86 performance ratings.Therefore, the analyses involving task performance as adependent variable were restricted to a sample size of 86.Initial analyses examined whether any demographic

    characteristics of the sample impacted on the dependent

    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 perceived

    privacy, 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 signi-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 measures







    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 225variables. Task performance and job satisfaction weretherefore regressed onto sample characteristics (gender,age, education level and tenure). Results indicated that nosample characteristic signicantly predicted any of thedependent variables (ps4:20 for all predictors). Conse-quently, they were not included in further analyses.Preliminary analyses also examined whether the

    location of each participants workplace (i.e. MunicipalCouncil versus architecture rm) inuenced 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 rm had signicantly 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 ndingsindicate that the workplace location inuenced bothindependent and dependent variables and may conse-quently inuence 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 was

    correlated 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 ofce spaces. For media-tion to emerge the independent variable and the

    Table 2

    Intercorrelations between measures

    Mean Standard deviation

    1. Perceived privacy 2.91 1.13

    2. Stroop .61 .30

    3. Stimulus screening 4.12 .87

    4. Task complexity 3.29 .57

    5. Task performance 7.60 1.00

    6. Job satisfaction 4.83 1.08

    7. Location *pp:05, **po:01.of privacy (i.e. number of partitions, interpersonaldistance, and density) were not correlated with perceivedprivacy.

    3.2. Moderated regression analyses

    Hierarchical linear regression analyses were con-ducted to examine the higher order interactions (see

    2 3 4 5 6



    .17 .05

    .11 .56* .10.17 .23* .07 .01

    * .03 .04 .35** .02 .20*

    Table 3

    Intercorrelations between privacy measures

    1 2 3 4

    1. Perceived privacy

    2. # of partitions .103. Height of partitions .23* .46**4. # of employees in 5m radius .02 .56** .145. Physical distance between coworkers .13 .39** .16 .31**

    *pp:05, **pp:001.

  • Aiken & West, 1991). The rst step was to enter themain effects into the model. In order to avoid possible

    ARTICLE IN PRESSA. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Environ226multi-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 signicant 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 signicance to determine the shapeof the interaction.

    Main effects: Stimulus screening ability signicantlypredicted task performance (b :30, po:05). Theseresults conrm previous ndings that individuals withpoor stimulus screening ability demonstrate lowerperformance than other workers.

    Perceived privacy, task complexity and inhibitory

    ability: A signicant interaction emerged betweenperceived privacy, task complexity and inhibitory abilityfor job satisfaction (b :24, po:05). All other interac-tions were nonsignicant (all ps4.30). Following Aikenand West (1991), further analyses revealed that the effectof the Stroop on job satisfaction was signicant onlywhen perceived privacy was low and task complexitywas high (b :62, po:05). These results conrm 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, asignicant 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 signi-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 ofce 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 qualied by the higher order interactions.4. Discussion

    The 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 conrmation 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 task

    complexity 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 nding 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 ofces,resulting in a more positive affective response to the job.Stimulus screening also combined with perceived

    privacy and task complexity to inuence 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 inuencedemployees 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 nding 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 ndings conrmthat 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;

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229Oldham et al., 1991), but the results also suggest that

  • ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironinhibitory ability is an equally crucial factor. Further,the effect of inhibitory ability was independent of anyinuence 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 lternumerous 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 ofce, 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 on

    employee reactions to such an environment, theresearcher must rst identify the types of stimuli thatrequire inhibition and then nd 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 specics of the work-place environment might reveal a stronger role forinhibitory ability than was documented in the currentresearch.

    4.1. Limitations of the present study

    One 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 ndings in this studyregarding performance. Future research might addressthis problem by obtaining more objective indicators of

    A. Maher, C. von Hippel / Journal of Ejob 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 substantialndings 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 of

    incorporation 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 difculty 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 not

    rule out the possibility that stimulus screening is equallyimportant in a closed ofce environment. This possibi-lity seems unlikely given that employees in open ofcesare more susceptible to noises and uncontrollabledistractions (Sundstrom et al., 1980). Nonetheless, theorganizations that participated in this research had veryfew closed ofces, not allowing for comparisons to bemade between closed and open ofce layouts. Indeed,many organizations today are increasingly turning tothe open plan layout, even for their most senior

    mental Psychology 25 (2005) 219229 227employees (Hymowitz, 1998).

  • open-plan work environment. These ndings support

    ARTICLE IN PRESSnvironprevious research indicating that employees reactnegatively to open-plan ofce 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 nding 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 conrm and expandthese ndings. 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 ofces to help people whoare poor inhibitors avoid distractions? The informalobservations that employees were intentionally addres-sing workplace distractions, in combination with theempirical ndings regarding inhibitory ability andstimulus screening, suggest that these are importantquestions for future research.In conclusion, this study has identied the importance

    of employee perceptions, task characteristics, and theability to inhibit distractions in enabling an individual tocope with the overstimulation inherent to the open-planworkplace. Inhibitory processes are acknowledged asplaying a fundamental role in an individuals ability toeffectively function in their environment, and theyappear to inuence employees affective response totheir workplace.


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    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 study


    ResultsPreliminary analysesModerated regression analyses

    DiscussionLimitations of the present studyPractical implications and future research



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