Study finds open-plan offices lead to gender-biased environments

Study finds open-plan offices lead to gender-biased environments

Gender, Interior design, Office design, Open Plan Offices

A study that looked at the shift from traditional to open-plan offices revealed that women felt less comfortable in an open-plan layout.

Published in Gender, Work and Organisation journal, the research was conducted by academics Alison Hirst from the Anglia Ruskin University and Christina Schwabenland from the University of Bedfordshire, who studied a UK-based firm over a period of three years, which moved its 1,100 employees from a traditional office to an open-plan space.

The new open-plan office followed the typical layout of its kind, featuring identical desks for all employees, an increasing amount of glass to reduce a sense of separation, as well as collaborative spaces – all with the intention of breaking down hierarchies and employee engagement.

However, when interviewing the members of the office (27 women and 13 men), the researchers found that women employees felt less comfortable in an open-office layout due to a lack of privacy, highlighting issues such as constantly feeling watched and becoming more aware of their appearances as well as a sense of feeling judged.

Alternatively, based on the interviews, there was no indication that the shift in office design layout had affected men in the same way.

Women began adapting their behavior due to various reservations and a sense of always feeling watched by their male colleagues, such as entering various parts of the office.

One of the interviewees commented that instead of creating freedom of movement within the office, which the architect (who is kept anonymous) intended to offer, the new spatial layout, in fact, inhibited it.

Other responses from women included becoming more aware of their attire and its significance in the workplace, self-consciousness, as well as a negative response to the lack of private space in the case of feeling distressed, or in the case of engaging in a private conversations.

Open-plan offices are becoming more prominent in the Middle East as well, with examples such as Swiss Bureau’s office design for construction materials firm HIRA Walraven’s new office in Dubai, as well as Wilson Associate’s eclectic work space in Dubai Design District. 

Other such examples include T.Zed Architects’ open-plan office for KOA, and Swiss Bureau’s Emirates National Investment Office design (pictured).

designMENA has also published a report by office furniture manufacturer, Steelcase, which looked at the evolution of office design from the 1800s to today, citing open-plan offices as one of the key trends in office design.

Related story: Office design: How not to choose fads over functionality


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