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The right use of space improves office work
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The right use of space improves office work

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén/Helsinki, photo: Mikael Nybacka

Disturbing sounds like high volume conversations are often an environmental problem in workplaces, and it can lead to loss of concentration and more mistakes being made. Now new research out of Finland shows it is possible to reduce such inconveniences through flexible space concepts.

Interviews with employees in open plan offices indicate background noise disturbs their enjoyment of working and that it is the most important cause of unhappiness at work. People are suffering physically as well as psychologically.  

“First of all people mention things that have to do with the acoustics - noise and the fact that they cannot have private conversations,” says psychologist Annu Haapakangas at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki.

“If there is no calm to work in you don’t feel you have a good workplace.”

End report

For the past few years the institute has worked with the Aalto University, Åbo Academy University and Satakunta Vocational University with support from Tekes (the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation) and 15 companies to look at how open plan offices can be made more user friendly. Nordic Labour Journal has previously written about the new research around open plan offices.

The end report was presented at the beginning of September and the results are beyond expectations, according to researcher Valtteri Hongisto, who has headed the development project TOTI.

“When you make a good physiological change you can also change how satisfied people are with their job.”

Buy changing office layouts and asking the users before and after about how the inconveniences have affected them, the researchers have had near laboratory conditions to evaluate the effects of various measures. Their experiences have resulted in practical advise on how to develop open plan offices with relatively small means. 

Practical advice

The main focus is acoustics, ventilation and lighting. These tips can help improve a working environment:

1. Establish specific goals for the changes.

2. Build an office space team.

3. Start a process of change leadership.

4. Make profiles of the users and identify their work processes.

5. Create an overview of the physical and virtual (internet-based) working space.

6. Observe which signals the working environment gives to staff and outside visitors.

7. Inform and engage the users.

8. Learn new ways to use and look after your space.

All aboard

The researchers have launched the term multifunction office, a new and flexible space concept which has been created to meet the demands of knowledge-based work. The starting point is to define what the working space is being used for. 

“Those who use the space, i.e. the staff, should be included in the planning and kept informed about why changes are being made and what you hope to achieve by it,” says Hongisto. 

Users have been divided into four categories according to how mobile they are - everything from ‘anchor’ for someone who spends most of their time at a desk, to the ‘navigator’ who works in international networks and who only visits the office a few times every month. These people have different needs which should be taken into consideration when planning different spaces: sometimes you need zones for open interaction, other times zones for intensive project cooperation or individual work with no disturbing elements. 

Earlier researchers have managed to prove that noise is the main irritant in open plan offices. Now they also point to how interruptions to people’s workflow influences the achievement and the well-being of staff. 

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