Understanding Workspace

Author: Sanjana Basker

Many studies show that open offices—spaces with primarily shared workspace and no division between individual workers’ spaces—have negative effects on productivity, worker satisfaction, and worker health (e.g., Brennan et al., 2002; Bodin Danielsson, Chungkham, Wulff, & Westerlund, 2014; Oldham & Brass 1979). Yet, companies continue to build or redesign their workspaces within this framework. Why? How did the open office become popular? Are there alternatives to this style?

History of Physical Workspace Studies

Stepping back to the rise of factories, which emerged in the 1800s alongside the Industrial Revolution, workspaces primarily served utilitarian purposes. Factories were often unattractive with dirty halls packed with underpaid and overworked laborers (Sundstrom & Sundstrom, 1986). During World War II, workforce shortages encouraged companies to create working environments that attracted, not just housed, employees.

Prior to the 1950s, there was some examination of the way that workspaces like the traditional office building communicated messages to others. In the British Civil Service, for example, the amount of space in one’s office was correlated to one’s rank or stature. The larger the office and the more lavish the furniture, the more important the individual in the office (Baldry, 1997). In the 1950s, literature on the psychology of motivation and productivity emerged, influencing the way people thought about workspaces. By the end of the 20th century, the understanding that workplace design impacts work performance became evident, and a field of study was born (Sundstrom & Sundstrom, 1986).

Basics of Workspace Design

Psychological studies of physical workspace typically focus on three components: physical stimuli, physical structure, and symbolic artifacts. Physical stimuli are the aspects of a workspace (e.g., sights, sounds, smells) that elicit a response from someone. For example, the ringing of a phone draws attention to a call, or a screen lighting up draws attention to the computer or phone. Physical stimuli can also be more passive, such as the lighting of a room. In an open office plan, the individuals are exposed to more physical stimuli than in a traditional office layout (Smith-Jackson & Klein, 2009). Physical structure refers to the actual orientation and size of the workspace, including for example floor plan and square footage. Symbolic artifacts refer to the qualities of workspace furniture and décor that communicate messages to employees or outsiders (Davis, 1984). Such artifacts can communicate professional image, task effectiveness, status, or aesthetic cues to participants in the environment. For example, Parisian office workers at Crozier interpreted their lackluster surroundings as a lack of attention paid to them by executives in their organization (Baldry, 1997). Open office plans may communicate organizational values of collaboration, equality, or cost-savings depending on the use of symbolic artifacts and the nature of the physical structure.

The Open Office

The open-plan workspace became popular in the 1960s. (Sundstrom & Sundstrom, 1986). This plan was initially favored most by managers who were able to more easily observe all subordinates, and by executives who were able to fit more employees into a space at a time and therefore maximize space utility. However, open-plan workspaces were often unwelcome by employees. Lost in a sea of coworkers, employees reported reduced ownership in their environment and a sense of their individual importance to the organization. Studies conducted in the 1980s on the impact of these open-plan workspaces found that, beyond the lack of ownership, open-plan workspaces could be distracting and stressful for employees. The repeated distraction, from employee conversations and other physical stimuli, could result in employees seeking to distance themselves from their environments and ultimately lead to some withdrawal from the workspace (Lee & Brand 2005).

As team-based work becomes increasingly common, these shared spaces with many distractions have often been viewed as beneficial for modern collaborative projects and face-to-face communication (Smith-Jackson & Klein, 2009). Yet, empirical studies suggest that in-person communication and productivity both decline in an open office (Bernstein & Turban, 2018) and the additional distractions lead to slower work completion and increased perceptions of workload (Smith-Jackson & Klein, 2009).

Teleworking Alternatives

Telework—working remotely using the internet—is a flexible work arrangement designed to provide employees with more autonomy over how they work. Many employees appreciate the flexibility associated with being able to work remotely, or being able to only come into a physical office when necessary (Bailey & Kurland, 2002). Meta-analytic results suggest that telework improves perceived autonomy, job satisfaction, and performance, while reducing stress and work-family conflict (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007). High levels of telecommuting, however, were associated with reduced relationship quality with one’s coworkers. As such, it may still be important for remote workers to have a physical office to come to in order to interact with coworkers, supervisors, and clients.

Recently, many organizations are relying upon non-territorial workspaces to provide the amenities of a traditional office, while still cutting down on costs. The use of non-territorial workspaces also called hoteling or hot desking removes any individual ownership over a specific location within the office; workers simply use whatever location is available when they need it (Millward, Haslam, & Postmes, 2007). For teleworkers, non-territorial workspaces provide a central location to meet coworkers, supervisors, and clients when necessary. This arrangement may not have the same negative impact on satisfaction as traditional open office plans with assigned desks but may still pose problems in the form of an inability to find colleagues or an open desk (Kim, Candido, Thomas, & de Dear, 2016). On a psychological level, hot desking may be associated with a shift in employees’ identification, such that individuals who hot desk tend to identify with the organization more than with their work teams, unlike traditional employees who identify with their teams more than their organization (Millward et al., 2007).

Hotels, coffee shops, and a wide range of coworking spaces offer teleworkers or self-employed individuals opportunities to work in a third place (Moriset, 2014), a place where people congregate that is neither one’s home nor a traditional office. Coworking spaces may offer workers an opportunity to more easily network and collaborate with professionals outside of their own organization (Capdevila, 2013). Data suggest that a majority of coworking space users are freelancers or entrepreneurs (Waters-Lynch et al., 2016). About 14% of coworking space users between 2010 and 2012 were employed by organizations (Waters-Lynch et al., 2016). Third places, then, may still hold great potential for organizations who want to increase their teleworking population, while reducing or eliminating their physical office space. A recent literature review, however, suggests that employees must expend effort to plan where they will work in order to ensure the physical and social environments facilitate their work tasks (e.g., access to internet, limited distractions; Ng, 2016), thus returning to some of the same issues as open office concepts.


Open-plan offices have waxed and waned in popularity and seem to be particularly popular in the modern economy. Telework, and subsequently non-territorial workspaces and coworking spaces offer alternatives for organizations and employees to the open office plan. Certainly, much more empirical research is needed regarding these newer alternative work arrangements to determine how best to maximize employee productivity and wellbeing.

Workspace Takeaways

  1. Workspace design can communicate messages to external observers about status and success, but can also be designed to maximize productivity and community internally.
  2. Workspaces are comprised of three components: physical stimuli, physical structure, and symbolic artifacts.
  3. The open office plan has many drawbacks, yet continues to be popular among organizations. 
  4. Non-territorial workspaces and coworking spaces offer ways to mitigate some of the drawbacks of telework.

Further Reading: 

Bailey, D. E., & Kurland, N. B. (2002). A review of telework research: Findings, new directions, and lessons for the study of modern work. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 23(4), 383-400.

Baldry, C. (1997). The social construction of office space. International Labour Review,136(3), 365-378.

Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, 373(1753), 20170239.

Bodin Danielsson, C., Chungkham, H. S., Wulff, C., & Westerlund, H. (2014). Office design’s impact on sick leave rates. Ergonomics, 57(2), 139-147.

Brennan, A., Chugh, J. S., & Kline, T. (2002). Traditional versus open office design: A longitudinal field study. Environment and Behavior, 34(3), 279-299.

Capdevila I (2013) Knowledge dynamics in localized communities: coworking spaces as microclusters. SSRN. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2414121

Davis, T. R. (1984). The Influence of the Physical Environment in Offices. The Academy of Management Review, 9(2), 271-283.  

Elsbach, K. D. (2003). Relating Physical Environment to Self-Categorizations: Identity Threat and Affirmation in a Non-Territorial Office Space. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48(4), 622-654.  

Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(6), 1524-1541.

Haynes, B. P. (2008). The impact of office comfort on productivity. Journal of Facilities Management, 6(1), 37-51.

Kim, J., Candido, C., Thomas, L., & de Dear, R. (2016). Desk ownership in the workplace: The effect of non-territorial working on employee workplace satisfaction, perceived productivity and health. Building and Environment, 103, 203-214.

Lee, S. Y., & Brand, J. L. (2005). Effects of control over office workspace on perceptions of the work environment and work outcomes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(3), 323-333.

Millward, L. J., Haslam, S. A., & Postmes, T. (2007). Putting employees in their place: The impact of hot desking on organizational and team identification. Organization Science, 18(4), 547-559.

Moriset, B. (2014). Building new places of the creative economy. The rise of coworking spaces. Paper Presented at the 2nd Geography of Innovation International Conference 2014. Utrecht.

Ng, C. F. (2016). Public spaces as workplace for mobile knowledge workers. Journal of Corporate Real Estate, 18(3), 209-223.

Oldham, G. R., & Brass, D. J. (1979). Employee reactions to an open-plan office: A naturally occurring quasi-experiment. Administrative Science Quarterly, 267-284.

Smith-Jackson, T. L., & Klein, K. W. (2009). Open-plan offices: Task performance and mental workload. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(2), 279-289.

Sundstrom, E. D., & Sundstrom, M. G. (1986). Work places: The psychology of the physical environment in offices and factories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vischer, J. C. (2007). The effects of the physical environment on job performance: Towards a theoretical model of workspace stress. Stress and Health, 23(3), 175-184.

Vischer, J. C. (2008). Towards a user-centred theory of the built environment. Building Research & Information,36(3), 231-240.

Vischer, J. C. (2008). Towards an Environmental Psychology of Workspace: How People are Affected by Environments for Work. Architectural Science Review, 51(2), 97-108.

Waters-Lynch, J., Potts, J., Butcher, T., Dodson, J., & Hurley, J. (2016). Coworking: A transdisciplinary overview (Working Paper). Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn. com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id52712217

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