Workplace Environmental Psychology Research Paper

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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).

1.    Scope

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).

Workplace Environmental Psychology Research Paper

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.

3.1    Temperature

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.

3.4    Illumination

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

5.1    Noise

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.

5.2    Temperature

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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