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I am a M.A. in industrial/organizational psychology. Most of my experience has been in human resources and change management. My passion lies in employee assessment, organizational development and employee opinions. Website: www.IanMondrow.com LinkedIn Profile: http://linkd.in/drBYoC

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Can personal control over the physical environment ease distractions in office workplaces?

Summary and commentary by Ian B. Mondrow, M.A.

Personal control is defined as the perceived control an individual has over various characteristics of his/her environment, which includes: (1) the organization of one's workspace; (2) personalizing one's workspace; (3) control over social contact; and (4) control over temperature, lighting and the work process (Lee & Brand, 2009). Distraction is the extent to which an individual feels diverted, disturbed or annoyed by an unwanted stimulus in the work environment.

Little consensus has been achieved on  on control in the workplace, therefore much of the information was obtained from previous studies to create the control construct for this study. 9 items were developed to measure control using a 7-point likeart scale. Statements were collected from a previous study conducted by Weisman (1986) which measured concentration and noise level. 8 statements were extracted and utilized a 7-point likeart scale. Finally, one's judgement on his/her performance was collected based on Oldham's (1988) aspects of quality, quantity and creativity. These items were scored on a 5-point scale.

A sample population was collected utilizing three manufacturing companies based in Michigan. A total of 384 surveys were analyzed. Information about the physical aspect of each building was also collected, including, year constructed, facility size, renovation history, distribution method of HVAC systems and workspace specifications.

Demographics include the following:

  • 62% male; 38% female
  • 28% worked in engineering; 12.8% worked in marketing; 58% were employed in engineer/technical/ professional positions; 24% were managers; 13% were clerical/support and 4.2% considered themselves as other
  • 74% worked in an open office  with high dividers
  • Office type varied based on job category (i.e. clerical personnel were more likely to work in a cubicle and a professional is more likely to have an office
The analysis methodology was unclear and questionable. It is possible that I may not have a background in this methodology but there was no p-value to designate the significance of the results. However, the authors state that perceived control over the physical environment environment mediated the negative effects of distraction on one's performance.  Therefore, the negative effects of distracting noise can be decreased by providing employee's control of their personal work place. 

Results need to be interpreted delicately as they were collected based on self-report. Clearly self-report surveys are vulnerable to biases. 

While the topic requires further research, it does reveal some helpful information. First and foremost, private offices are the ideal workspace for any employee, as it dramatically reduces the possibility of distractions. However, private offices for every individual employee is not always feasible and therefore, companies often resort to a public work environment.

When a public work environment is needed, employers should try to eliminate distractions as much as possible. One popular method is to use cubicle walls to provide employees with privacy. Some companies choose to avoid cubicles due to the stigma it can create. Even with cubicles, distractions, such as noise, are impossible to avoid. This article suggest increasing an employee's sense of personal control can assist them in blocking external distractions. Simple yet effective methods can be used, such as: 
Believe it or not, it is possible to get cubicles with doors
  • Instead of using overhead fluorescent lights, give employees lamps with a dimming feature
  • Allow employees to layout furniture
  • Encourage employee's to decorate their desk with pictures of their liking
  • Allow employees to which desk they want to sit at (if possible)
  • Enclose a cubicle and give employees the right to have a door

Source: Lee, S.Y., & Brand, J.L. (2010). Can personal control over the physical environment ease distractions in office workplaces? Ergonomics, 53 (3), 324-335.

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