New research says the corner office may not be best for your health or stress levels

New research from the University of Arizona suggests that open-concept offices may have hidden health benefits for workers.

Workers in open-office settings experience less stress, higher levels of activity: University of Arizona study

Open concept working environment
Activity levels for people in open offices are 32 per cent higher compared to people in private offices. (Shutterstock)

New research from the University of Arizona says the elusive corner office many people aspire to might not be all it's cracked up to be.

According to a study published this week in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, people who work in open-office settings experience less stress and higher levels of activity than the private-office dwellers.

"Open-bench seating," as the study calls it, is an office setting where co-workers share workspaces. They can see and talk to each other at all times, unlike workers in a private office or even a cubicle that provides barriers for privacy.

The open environment works well for teams that require constant contact, like in a newsroom where workers need to know everything that is going on.

Researchers chose four different federal buildings in the U.S. and monitored more than 250 employees over 2½ days.

Dr. Esther Sternberg is a former Canadian and the senior author on the study from the University of Arizona. (Kris Hanning)

"We used wearable devices — a chest-worn heart rate variability monitor — to measure their stress and relaxation response; their activity; their posture," said Dr. Esther Sternberg, the senior author on the study at the University of Arizona.

"Also, we were able to measure what was happening when they went home at night."

Higher activity levels in shared spaces

The study found that the activity levels for people in open offices were 32 per cent higher compared to people in private offices and 20 per cent higher than for people in cubicles.

The authors suggest that workers who spend most of their day within earshot and eyesight of others need to get creative about where they do their work. Sometimes they have to make a private phone call; sometimes they need to have a larger space for meeting with different people.

The close working quarters mean that workers are more likely to get up and wander around the office to find a space that suits their needs.

Meanwhile, those in corner offices have everyone come to them and do all their work in one spot.

Less stress at night

The research also suggests that people who work in open office settings report less stress at night than those with private offices as a result of increased activity during the day.

In many cases, those with private offices are often more senior employees, or take on more responsibilities in the workplace. So researchers deliberately sought office settings that had individuals at different levels in the hierarchy with the same open office or closed office arrangements.

This approach allowed them to see the stress impact of their work setting, unrelated to their roles and responsibilities.

The future of workspaces

The authors of the study say that while the open-office concept might have started with a push to reduce rental and overhead costs by having more people work in less space, their findings may help shape best practices and guidelines for office design and operations.

"This study can inform designers' thinking about how office design elements might encourage physical activity and potentially even reduce levels of stress, thus facilitating a healthier lifestyle," the researchers write.


Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur has been the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One since 2013. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and studied how worm gonads develop. She now teaches at the University of Alberta as a contract lecturer in cell biology and genetics.