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Workplace environmental psychology focuses on the role of physical environments in workers’ experience, performance, and interaction in buildings that serve as workplaces, especially offices and factories. This subﬁeld of environmental psychology studies the inﬂuences of physical features of workplaces on workers and their relationships, and how workers and groups use, modify, and adapt to their environments. Also a subﬁeld of industrial– organizational psychology, workplace environmental psychology overlaps with engineering psychology, but deals with larger-scale environmental features, including some studied by architectural psychology.
Workplace environmental psychology developed during the 1980s, though the underlying empirical research dates from the early 1900s (Sundstrom 1986).
Table 1 illustrates the scope of workplace environmental psychology. It emphasizes the individual and interpersonal levels of analysis, although the scope also extends to the organizational level (see Fischer 1997, Sundstrom 1987).
1.1 Individual Level Of Analysis
The individual or psychological level of analysis focuses on objectively measurable ambient conditions—temperature, air quality, illumination, and sound—and features of workstations, or areas designed to accommodate one worker. It also focuses on features of supportive environments such as restrooms and walkways. Research and theory of the subﬁeld concern the inﬂuences of these features on individual performance, job satisfaction, health, and other outcomes via psychological processes listed in Table 1.
1.2 Interpersonal Level Of Analysis
The interpersonal or social–psychological level of analysis examines the social implications of psychological inﬂuences of workplaces, such as an adverse effect of noise on attention to social cues. The interpersonal level of analysis also applies to features of workspaces (individually assigned workstations) that communicate status, personal identity, or other meanings, and to features of work settings that limit or facilitate access among workers for casual, face-to-face interaction, meetings, or conferences. This level of analysis extends to elements of physical settings with roles in the development and effectiveness of work teams (interdependent collections of individuals who share responsibility for speciﬁc outcomes for their organizations; see Teamwork and Team Training).
Features of physical environment shown in Table 1 can serve multiple functions at both individual and interpersonal levels, and one function can be served by multiple features. For example, a fully enclosed (‘private’) office can symbolize rank, limit noise, and aid in regulating interaction. Each element of a workplace can have a role in a larger system, so analyzing them calls for a systems perspective.
1.3 Organizational Level Of Analysis
Because of its roles in interpersonal relationships, the physical environment is a factor in organizational development and effectiveness, although relevant research is sparse. Facets of physical environments can support, reinforce, and complement organizational structure. Consequently, interventions to promote organizational development include changes in work environments. Designing buildings for work calls for mapping organizational structure to optimize the ﬁt (Becker and Steele 1995).
2. State Of The Art
Workplace environmental psychology, a relatively new subﬁeld, draws on parent ﬁelds, environmental and industrial–organizational psychology, for research and theory. Empirical research on topics listed in Table 1 includes over 100 studies conducted in offices, factories, and other workplaces, and hundreds more in laboratories.
The research shows that the physical workplace, as a whole, represents a signiﬁcant factor in individual job satisfaction, health, and performance, and group formation and cohesion. Findings on speciﬁc facets of the workplace are summarized in the following sections at the individual and interpersonal levels of analysis, along with accepted theoretical explanations.
3. Individual Workers And Ambient Conditions
Ambient conditions are the most intensively studied facets of the workplace. Evidence concerning individual satisfaction and health comes mainly from research in workplaces, including postoccupancy evaluations (assessments of new buildings using multiple measures; see Architectural Psychology). Evidence concerning performance comes mainly from laboratory experiments.
Thermal comfort in workplaces depends on ambient air temperature and relative humidity, air movement, radiant heat sources, activity level, clothing, and individual differences. In offices, temperature represents a common source of dissatisfaction with the physical environment. Up to 20 percent of office workers report feeling too cold or too warm at temperatures the majority ﬁnds comfortable.
Effects of temperature on performance reﬂect arousal (generalized physiological psychological excitation) which increases during initial exposure to heat, and eventually falls below normal after continued exposure. The arousal hypothesis (see Sundstrom 1986) predicts optimum performance at moderate arousal and poorer performance if arousal is too high or low. Optimum arousal is higher for simple or practiced tasks, and lower for complex tasks and learning.
Consistent with the arousal hypothesis, laboratory experiments show that warm temperatures brieﬂy boost performance of simple tasks. Other research shows no effect on performance of moderately demanding cognitive tasks. Exposure to heat for 30 minutes or more without rest periods degrades performance of complex and demanding tasks such as manual tracking, vigilance (monitoring displays for change or irregular signals), and dual tasks (simultaneous primary and secondary tasks). Decrements in dual tasks appeared in secondary tasks, often as errors of omission, suggesting that heat contributes to sensory cognitive overload and prompts the usual coping responses: narrowing of attention and ignoring low-priority inputs. Early studies in factories found adverse effects of heat on output and accident rates ameliorated by ventilation.
3.2 Noise And Sound
Noise (or unwanted sound; see Kryter 1994) ranks high among sources of dissatisfaction with offices, particularly coworkers talking and telephones ringing. Dissatisfaction correlates with peak sound levels above background, not with background levels, consistent with evidence that noise is most irritating when irregular or unpredictable. Some research ﬁnds overall job satisfaction signiﬁcantly and inversely correlated with annoyance by noise.
Loud background noise initially elevates arousal, which diminishes with adaptation (decrease over time in responsiveness to a feature of the environment, via perceptual change, altered metabolism, or active coping). Performing a complex or demanding task during noise slows adaptation. Laboratory research shows that adaptation can have psychological costs or adverse aftereffects in the form of temporarily impaired capacity immediately after working during loud, unpredictable, uncontrollable noise.
Individual health may suffer when prolonged exposure to noise is combined with an additional source of job stress. Working in a noisy environment correlates with physiological symptoms of stress among employees dissatisﬁed with their jobs, working on rotating shifts, or facing high job demands (see Evans et al. 1994).
Noise affects performance through arousal, overload, distraction, and masking of helpful sounds. Consistent with the arousal hypothesis, continuous loud noise over 100 decibels (dB) produces a brief increment in performance of some clerical tasks. Short-term exposure to noise has no effect on performance of some moderately complex tasks, such as reading. However, noise as loud as 90dB degrades performance of complex motor tasks, vigilance, mental tasks, and dual tasks. Decrements in performance of complex tasks intensify when the loud noise comes in irregular or intermittent bursts.
Music—sound intended for enjoyment—accompanies work in some offices and factories. Of published studies conducted in workplaces, many found no effect of music on performance. Those that assessed employees’ attitudes about music found them generally favorable. A few studies reported positive effects of music on output or quality; none found decrements. Laboratory research found no effects of music on performance of clerical tasks or reading, but some beneﬁcial effects on vigilance. Performance increments are consistent with the capacity of music to increase arousal or postpone its usual decline during prolonged, monotonous work.
3.3 Air Quality
Key variables related to air quality in workplaces include ventilation (ﬂow of fresh air) and air pollution (gas, dust, mist, vapor, ﬁber, or other ingredients besides the natural constituents of air). In factories, a small fraction of complaints about working conditions concern air quality. In offices that allow smoking, a substantial fraction of nonsmokers report annoyance with tobacco smoke. In office buildings, poor ventilation has been associated with elevated rates of respiratory illness.
Laboratory research indicates that the intensity of illumination inﬂuences performance through its effects on visibility of details. In tasks requiring visual discrimination, performance increases with intensity of lighting, but performance gains diminish as lighting intensity increases. As light becomes brighter, glare (uncomfortably bright light in the visual ﬁeld) can pose problems. Research in offices has generally found employees satisﬁed with the lighting. Employees tend to prefer ‘natural’ light from windows, a preference that could reﬂect other desirable features of windows such as the view outside.
4. Individuals And Features Of Workstations
Analysis of relationships between individuals and workstations relies on models of the human–machine system. Related research yields guidelines for designing displays, controls, and other features such as seating and positioning of equipment.
Research on a common type of equipment in many workstations, computer video displays, illustrates a typical sequence. When video displays entered workplaces, early studies found problems with visibility and complaints of symptoms such as headaches and eyestrain. New designs that reduced or resolved the problems soon appeared in offices; later research found fewer problems. Similar research redesign reevaluation cycles occurred for other common elements of workstations, such as keyboards and chairs. Early studies of office chairs found complaints of discomfort and symptoms of strain. New chair designs incorporated guidelines based on the research; later research found most office employees satisﬁed with chairs that usually had padded seats, lower back support, and adjustable seat height.
Employees may personalize their workspaces by decorating them with photos, memorabilia, artwork, plants, and other unique objects—as allowed by company policies and features of the workspace. Some research in offices found satisfaction with the work environment positively correlated with personalization of workspaces.
5. Interpersonal Effects Of Ambient Conditions
Noise interferes with conversation by masking the sounds of coworkers’ voices. In noisy workplaces, coworkers move closer and shout to be heard. (They may also talk less.) In uncomfortably loud noise, people pay less attention to social cues, possibly as a response to a form of overload from noise. Participants in a laboratory simulation assigned lower salaries to ﬁctitious job applicants in noise than in quiet, but this ﬁnding has not been replicated in actual workplaces.
Research from social psychology has found a correlation of moderately uncomfortable heat and aggressive behavior, but this ﬁnding has no demonstrated parallel in workplaces. A multination study found national, ambient temperature positively correlated with reported role overload (Van de Vliert and Van Ypersen 1996).
6. Interpersonal Relationships And Workplaces
6.1 Workspaces As Status Markers
Characteristics of workspaces that signify rank, or status markers, include a private office, privileged location, exterior windows, ﬂoor space, guest seating, and others. Research in offices shows that employees consistently recognize status markers within their organizations. Status markers communicate the occupant’s rank to visitors. Research in offices has found that among those with supervisory responsibility, status markers are associated with satisfaction with the work environment.
6.2 Proximity And Communication
In offices and factories where individuals have assigned workspaces, research has consistently found the frequency of casual or informal conversation correlated with the physical proximity of the employees’ workspaces. The relationship of formal communication (required by work roles) with proximity of workspaces is more complex. Coworkers whose jobs call for frequent, face-to-face interaction tend to be assigned to workspaces near one another. As walking distance between workspaces increases, preferred means of communication shift from face-to-face conversation to telephone calls or written messages, except for certain kinds of meetings seen as requiring face-to-face interaction.
6.3 Physical Enclosure And Regulation Of Interaction
Perceived privacy (selective control over access by others to oneself ) in a workspace correlates with enclosure by walls or partitions. Privacy facilitates regulation of workers’ interaction. Some research in offices found privacy correlated with job satisfaction among employees of similar rank.
Enclosure of workspaces is important to performance because it restricts accessibility, limits noise and visual distraction, reduces interruptions, and possibly limits overload. Enclosure may also limit social facilitation (motivating effect of the presence of others) and spontaneous conversation with coworkers located nearby. Research points to a complex relationship of enclosure with performance depending on task complexity and personality traits like ability to ‘screen’ social input (see Oldham et al. 1995).
In the 1970s and 1980s many organizations adopted ‘open-plan offices,’ with minimal enclosure of work-spaces and few signs of rank. Reduced enclosure was expected to aid communication. Some evaluations of open-plan offices found no change in communication; some found increases only in casual conversation; others found declines in conﬁdential conversation, friendship opportunity, and supervisor feedback. Privacy declined, usually along with satisfaction with the environment.
6.4 Room Layout And Face-To-Face Conversation
Research in offices ﬁnds greater ‘psychological distance’ in face-to-face meetings over a desk than without a desk, although meetings last just as long in either arrangement. Recent research found ‘stand-up’ meetings as effective, but faster and less personal, than ‘sit-down’ meetings.
In laboratory research on face-to-face meetings of three or more people, conversation follows lines of eye contact. Leaders emerge in places affording eye contact with the most members. Circular tables avoid this ‘head of the table’ effect.
7. Physical Environments And Work Groups
Informal groups tend to form among employees in adjacent or nearby workspaces in offices and factories. Work groups physically enclosed or isolated from their organizations develop cohesion (attraction commitment of members to the group) often along with unique group norms (shared habits and attitudes).
In the 1990s, many organizations adopted team-based organizations (with groups as primary performing units). Facilities supportive of effective work teams ideally incorporate colocated workstations, shared group workspace, conference space, informal gathering places, and other features, depending on the type of group (Wineman and Serrato 1999).
Some organizations use ‘virtual teams’ (work groups with geographically dispersed members who collaborate via electronic communication; see Mittleman and Briggs 1999). Facilities for virtual teamwork include videoconference facilities and computer-based ‘group decision support systems,’ which can also be used face to face.
8. Workplace Trends And Evolution
Issues for workplace environmental psychology evolve along with the technology of workplaces. Factory automation requires fewer workers, who spend more time at computer workstations. Increasing use of manufacturing teams calls for more conference space. As technology makes knowledge work more portable, more of it occurs in workers’ homes as ‘telecommuting’ (Christensen 1988). Work at home reduces office costs, but raises issues concerning home workspaces. Numbers of full-time office occupants may decline. Other trends point to increasing needs temporarily to accommodate part-time employees, contractors, visitors from elsewhere in the organization, and employees of supplier or customer organizations. Increasing use of work groups brings corresponding increases in needs for conference space in offices.
As workplaces evolve more toward conference centers, workplace environmental psychology may focus more on physical support for work groups and collaboration.
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