Are the cubicle walls closing in?

While the open-plan office is the primary working environment in North America, a study by the National Research Council of Canada shows that employees are generally unhappy with the status quo.

And although open-plan offices might

help firms save money over the short term, the NRC says poor office designs could hurt companies’ bottom lines over the long term if worker dissatisfaction ultimately translates into reduced productivity.

The public sector organization is currently conducting a cross-country seminar series to release key findings from the Cost-effective Open-Plan Environments (COPE) study it spearheaded, and hopes designers will heed recommendations included in the comprehensive report.

“”If people are less happy with their jobs, they’ll be less likely to do overtime and more likely to look elsewhere for employment,”” said Dr. Guy Newsham, COPE project manager and a senior research officer at NRC in Ottawa. He added that the seminar series, which began on Oct. 13, 2004 and ends on Jan. 20, 2005, will focus on best practices for open-plan design.

As it now stands, he explained, a business that has an acoustics problems might call in an acoustics planner who might come in, consider the situation and suggest the installation of higher panels. The problem with this is that if the panels are higher, the amount of lighting that can get into the cubicles might be reduced.

“”And what’s really important for controlling the amount of speech you get from one station to the next is to have a nice ceiling,”” he said, addressing the topic of noise reduction. The sound absorption rating of the ceiling should be 0.9, he continued, up from the typical rating of 0.5. “”You can waste money having higher panels if you don’t have a proper ceiling.””

In addition to having a good ceiling, he said, companies should also invest in sound masking systems and panels that are high enough to cut off direct speech from one workstation to another.

As part of the COPE project, researchers created software that designers can use to determine the impact of certain office design choices. NRC’s partners in the study were Public Works and Government Services Canada, Building Technology Transfer Forum, USG Corp., Ontario Realty Corp., British Columbia Building Corp., Natural Resources Canada and Steelcase Inc.

David Wiebe, owner of Eurocraft Office Furnishings in Winnipeg, Man., reasoned that businesses can plan their offices by considering four important elements.

“”As for privacy, the height of the wall will depend on the level of privacy wanted,”” he said. “”For sound transmission, it depends on what you’re doing. If you’re a call centre, you need good acoustics to control the sound level so that there’s no carry over into other cubicles. As for workspace configuration, it depends on the type of tasks being performed. And how much storage is needed, it depends on how many books and (how much) equipment is being used.””

Discussing the ins and outs of office furniture suitability, Bal Mustapha, owner and interior designer at Mustapha Designs Inc. and MDI Office Furniture, both located in Winnipeg, Man., said factors such as the height of cubicles can make or break productivity levels in the workplace.

“”If cubicles are too high, people can feel segregated,”” she said. “”If cubicles are too low, people like to chit-chat, and you get zero efficiency in the work environment. The ideal height we use for our cubicles for open offices is 66 inches.””

Gary Gill, U.S. sales director at Artopex Inc., a Granby, Que.-based office furniture designer and builder, said that there’s a primary reason cubicles have become smaller and smaller over the years — much to the chagrin of claustrophobic workers — and it all has to do with dollars and cents.

“”We’re moving to lighter, more moveable cubicles,”” he said. “”Manufacturers have tried to bring costs down. Our industry is very cost sensitive. You can win or lose a project by a dollar.””

For companies that want the right type of open-plan offices, Artopex offers a computer assisted design service that enables businesses to see in 3-D exactly what specific office configurations look like. So, for instance, they’d be able to determine, based on whatever information they feed into the program, whether proposed cubicles are too high or too low.

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