Based on data from the Level of Living Survey on Working Conditions by Statistics Norway, the researchers investigated the relationships between office design, access to telework from home and self-certified sick leave. They found a higher probability of such absence among employees in conventional open-plan offices (i.e., office landscapes with fixed seating), than among employees in private offices. This was true regardless of the employees’ age, gender, and level of education.

– Our findings confirm those of previous studies, which have identified open-plan offices as a potential risk factor for sick leave compared to private offices. A key strength of this study is that it’s conducted on a large, nationally representative sample of office employees and has a satisfactory response rate, says researcher and PhD candidate Randi Hovden Borge.

A surprising result

The study is among the first to investigate the connection between access to telework from home and sick leave. The findings indicate that employees with such access had an overall lower probability of sick leave than employees without this alternative.

In advance, the researchers expected that access to telework from home would reduce the differences in probability of sick leave between office designs. Instead, they found that such access amplified the differences between private offices and conventional open-plan offices. This was partly because employees in private offices with the option to work from home had a particularly low probability of sick leave, but also because access to telework from home did not benefit employees in open-plan offices in the same way.

– This finding surprised us a little. We wanted to investigate whether access to telework from home would act as a buffer for some of the challenges people experience in open-plan offices. But we found no support for this, at least in the matter of sick leave. The negative aspects of conventional open-plan offices should therefore be addressed regardless of the employees’ access to telework from home, Randi Hovden Borge says.

Rapidly changing

Contemporary office work is rapidly changing along several dimensions. The diversity in office design is intertwined with a diversity in office use (e.g., fixed versus shared seating), and office location (e.g., at the worksite versus at home). The result is a multitude of office concepts with various flexible work arrangements, such as shared workstations, activity-based offices and telework from home. This development has been mainly technology-driven and was accelerated by COVID-19 measures. The potential consequences for employees’ health, well-being and productivity have received less attention.

In Norway, private offices are still most common. In this study, 45 % of respondents reported that they had a private office, while just under 20 % worked in conventional open-plan offices. 18 % worked in conventional shared-rooms and 9 % in non-territorial offices.

More and more organizations are introducing shared-room and open-plan solutions. This is often done to cut costs through area savings, but also with an expectation of increased creativity and collaboration. At the same time, little is known about the health effects of such solutions.

– Despite expectations of increased innovation and interaction, studies using objective measures has shown that face-to-face communication between employees is significantly reduced in open-plan offices, says researcher Morten Birkeland Nielsen from STAMI.

He adds that even though previous studies on the relations between office concepts and health are scarce, the sum of research indicate that undesirable health outcomes occur more often among employees in open-plan offices and shared offices than among employees in private offices.

A potential risk

With regards to sickness absence and withdrawal, the results from previous studies are inconsistent. Even though several studies have found higher sickness absence among employees in open-plan offices compared to those in private offices, others have been unable to demonstrate such a connection. This inconsistency indicates the need for more high-quality studies of the relationship between office design and sick leave.

– Research-based knowledge on factors that influence sick leave among office workers is important, especially in a time where a lot of organizations are implementing new office concepts. Our findings indicate that open-plan offices may be a potential risk factor for sick leave, and this should be considered when comparing different office designs, Randi Hovden Borge concludes.