Squabbles at work may be result of office design

September 10, 2015 by David Callahan, KTH Royal Institute of Technology
A recent study shows that particularly for women, the risk of conflict at work increases in so-called combi- and flex-offices. Credit: KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Your likelihood of squabbling with co-workers could be due to the design of your office, according to researchers in Sweden.

A recent study shows that particularly for , the risk of conflict at increases in so-called combi- and flex-offices. And what's worse, women are more bothered by noise in these types of office plans than men are.

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, by co-authors Christina Bodin Danielsson, a researcher at Stockholm's KTH Royal Institute of Technology School of Architecture & Built Environment and Stockholm University's Stress Research Institute; Töres Theorell from SU's Stress Research Institute; Lennart Bodin from Karolinska Institute; and Cornelia Wulff, from Mäldardalen University.

Increasingly popular combi- and flex-offices are activity-based designs that offer employees a choice of work environments for different activities. Flex-offices also mean no one has their own, individual workstation. Combi-offices, on the other hand, offer individual workspaces but are designed for team-based work. They're highly stressful, too, says Bodin Danielsson.

"In a combi-office, the fact that you work as a team could be a possible explanation for the environment's negative impact on , Bodin Danielsson says. "Group work itself shown to lead to conflicts."

Surprisingly perhaps, the study also found that significantly fewer conflicts arise in large open office plans, where 25 more people work. This was especially true for women, Bodin Danielsson says. "Men appear to be less sensitive to the influence of office type for workplace conflicts."

But when it comes to combi-offices, Bodin Danielsson says that women are particularly vulnerable to the stress these designs create.

"Although men are also affected, it seems that other factors play a larger role in the occurrence of conflicts among men," Bodin Danielsson days. "We found among women that most conflicts occur in the two activity-based office types, combined and flex office."

Women were found to get into conflicts much less often in both medium (8.3 percent of the time) and large open plan office (8.1 percent) than men (11.9 and 17.4 percent). The result confirms other studies that find women have less workplace conflicts.

Of all office types, combi-offices are the only type where a significant increase in male conflicts can be found.

When it comes to noise, considerably more women than men are bothered by it in small, medium and large open plan office, the study also finds. Among the men surveyed, 46.1 percent of them reported being annoyed by noise in small open plan offices, compared to 59.5 percent of women.

"There have been other studies that find women are more affected than men by physical stimuli. There is a greater 'sensitivity', so to speak, something that is found in, among other things, research on shopping. For example, we know that women are more aware of the details of an environment than men," she says.

Bodin Danielsson points out that existing studies show women are more sensitive to the social aspects of a workplace than men. Women give and receive more social support among colleagues, she says. "This is might partly explain the differences we found between women and men in design impact on the occurrence of conflicts."

The study was based on data collected by the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health, a nationally representative psychosocial survey of the Swedish working population.

Explore further: Offices with open floor plans tied to more sick days

More information: The relation between office type and workplace conflict: A gender and noise perspective, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 42, June 2015, Pages 161–171. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.04.004

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