'Sardine rage' rules in the shrinking office

Australian workplace experts have identified a new condition called "sardine rage" caused by the rising popularity of sprawling open-plan offices and shrinking desk sizes.

Work spaces in the CBD have shrunk by almost a quarter in recent years according to official statistics, as companies seek to cut costs from commercial leases.

With many teams now relocated into tight knit clusters around their manager, some are complaining about a barrage of new noises, unwanted smells, territorial disputes and cramped conditions.

Richard Kasperczyk, managing director of Victorian people management firm ResolutionsRTK, said the key issues cited by staff were "noise levels, odour - not just body odour - but also food smells when staff would eat at their desk, as well as listening in to discussions which impacted their concentration levels”.

The City of Sydney is preparing to embark on a new survey to track shrinking office spaces in the CBD. Figures from its 2006 office census revealed that the work space for a staff member in open-plan offices had fallen 25 per cent over 10 years to 11.49 square metres, while hot-deskers and call-centre workers were allocated just 7.6 square metres on average.

Although more recent figures will not be available until the survey results are analysed, Clive Warren, an associate professor at the University of Queensland's business school said he believed the average workspace was now "approaching 8 or 9 square metres".

Chris Heywood, a senior property lecturer at the University of Melbourne, said: "I recall seeing figures as little as five square metres per person not including communal areas and there has been some debate that that has gone too far.”

Hot-desking takes off

It may be the result of cost cutting, but the open office has largely been promoted by managers as a way of creating more flexible, team-based workflow, and a means of introducing new work practices such as hot-desking.

John Harrs, regional design director at office furnishing specialist Haworth, said: "When well planned and well resolved, it facilitates happenstance meetings more than a cellular environment might."

But while many organisations have adapted well to the environment, not everyone has benefitted, said Kasperczyk.

"Some of those [organisations] find it works out far better than they had thought. Others have different stories . . . there was an interesting term 'sardine rage' that was used by some.”

In a 2008 report in the Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, Dr Vinesh Oommen, a senior project officer for Queensland University of Technology, said that research he had collated pointed to many problems within open plan environments, including the loss of privacy and identity, various health issues, social overstimulation and low job satisfaction.

And it wasn't only cramped call centre and service staff who suffered. The report concluded that almost all highly skilled jobs were more negatively affected by open plan layouts because of the need for more privacy in order to perform at an optimal level.

"People who are seated closely together in an open plan work environment may suffer from physiological and psychological reactions such as stress, fatigue, and increased blood pressure levels," his report found.

"Regardless of the research findings, employers will ignore [them] as they find it expensive building closed offices," said Oommen.

Heywood believes a range of issues has contributed to the inability of some teams to adapt well to this fundamental change.

"There are a whole lot of psychological and place attachment issues in any change process . . . but we don't recognise that connection. There are territorial issues that come into play and corporates need to actively manage the change process,” he said.

Bigger breakout spaces

Warren said companies were now waking up to the realities of how shrinking spaces could affect productivity, and working harder to improve the office environment.

“It's nice to save space and introduce new practices like hot-desking but you have to balance these with productivity," he said.

Sydney commercial realtor Tim Green said many corporate decision-makers moving towards open plan structures were introducing initiatives to increase personal space away from the desk.

"[Open offices] are not necessarily larger but they have more breakout space, more communal areas, and outdoor barbecues and balconies," he said.

However Oommen argued this was not an adequate trade-off.

"It is very silly to have a huge tearoom and a huge reception or chat area, when your employee is working in such a small space where they hardly can find any space to keep their office bag. The golden rule is - bigger the space given to the employee leads to more productivity,” he said.

Kasperczyk added: "I think the deal is that when you have a positive and psychologically healthy culture and work environment, the smaller "shrunk" workspaces work quite well and especially if the reward is a nicer physical environment. But where there are unhealthy and conflicting interpersonal relationships, the new arrangements can cause more clashes to the extent that a group can become dysfunctional."

Common gripes of the open plan worker

  • Incessant noise from nearby conversations or phones
  • Unpleasant odours from others' meals and snacks
  • Overstimulation with too much going on around
  • Lack of personal space for coats, bags and other possessions
  • Lack of privacy and a feeling of being watched

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