Life Wellbeing Workers in open-plan offices may be more active, researchers say

Workers in open-plan offices may be more active, researchers say

open plan office
Open plan workspaces could encourage people to move more and stress less, according to new research. Photo: Getty
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If you’re an office worker who spends most of your day sitting, you may want to consider switching to an open workstation as an incentive to get moving.

New research has found that workers with open office seating were more likely to be physical active during the day, compared to those in private offices or cubicles.

Staying active and healthy while at work is recognised as a priority setting by the World Health Organisation and the Australian health department.

Yet, more than half of the workforce is classified as sedentary or largely physically inactive, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

For the recent study, led by University of Arizona researchers, 231 public servants in the US from four different buildings wore stress and activity sensors for three days and two nights during the work week.

The participants also self-reported mood levels by completing a series of hourly surveys on their smartphones.

People in open bench seating arrangements were 32 per cent more physically active at the office than those in private offices, and 20 per cent more active than those in cubicles, according to the study findings.

“This research highlights how office design, driven by office workstation type, could be an important health-promoting factor,” research director at the University of Arizona’s Centre for Integrative Medicine, Dr Esther Sternberg, said.

Those who moved around frequently were also more likely to experience less stress outside of work hours, the researchers said.

“Consistent with prior research, we found higher stress levels at the office among older participants and those with higher BMI,” the study authors wrote.

“Interestingly, our analyses also revealed that women exhibited both lower levels of physical activity at the office and higher levels of stress outside the office compared with men.”

As with any observational study, the researchers acknowledged that their findings do not prove that an open office space makes a worker more physically active – merely that there was a link between the two factors.

For example, most of the workers didn’t have a choice of where they could sit, and the size of the workspace varied between the different sites. Access to natural light or windows with a view may have also skewed the results.

Dr Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond Business School, told The New Daily many open-plan offices have been specifically designed to encourage physical activity while on the job.

“There’s no bins at the desk. Some kitchens are almost one kilometre away from their desk. Meeting rooms are in central locations,” she said.

It’s a good strategy to encourage people to move more, but we need to take a closer look at the motivations of people as well, she said.

“Often in management and organisational behaviour research we get what’s known as a ‘halo effect’ when you move to a new office.

“Even if the new working environment is noisier, or less conducive to work, there’s a halo effect because there’s a new kitchen, and new excitement whereas the old office may have been ugly and had dead plants.

“They might be going out of the office for coffee, or to a modern café or new lounge area.

“Also, if someone’s following you around, you might behave differently than you normally do.”

Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) recommends interrupting sitting time every 30 minutes for two to three minutes of light activity. This may include getting up for water, taking a bathroom break or chatting to colleagues instead of emailing.

ESSA also recommends including half an hour of light to moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, in your workday.

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