The Psychology Of Workplace Design

The perils of open-plan offices and hot desking.

By John Hackston
From the June 2024 Issue


Organizations can be siloed, hierarchical places where individuals from different teams don’t communicate with each other, and open-plan offices have emerged as one way to solve these issues. The thought process is that in an open-plan office, communication will be easier and less formal. However, research suggests that any existing benefits are outweighed by negative effects, including noise, distraction, and lack of privacy. In two different studies carried out by The Myers-Briggs Company (in 2015 and in 2022), those working in open-plan offices rated satisfaction with their work environment lower than those working in most other settings. The reality may be that cost savings is the real reason why these spaces are popular.

open-plan offices, Workplace Design
(Photo: Adobe Stock / Nolan)

Cost is also a driver of the move to hot desking, where an employee does not have their own dedicated workspace, but instead can use one of several desks, workstations or areas that they share in common with other workers. However, these arrangements can reduce job satisfaction and worker productivity. This may be because they have a negative effect on an employee’s sense of security and their “territory,” both as an individual and as a member of a group, and of ownership of that part of the workplace that is “theirs.” Some offices have created systems where a staff member can pick up their personalized “desktop” from a storage area and transport it to wherever they are working.

In our research, neither open plan working nor hot desking were popular among employees. Those working in open-plan offices were among the least satisfied with their working environment. When asked in the 2022 study, “What one change would make the biggest improvement to your office or other working environment?” the most common theme concerned having greater privacy and getting rid of open-plan offices. Where possible, then, companies should step back from these office layouts. Realistically, this will seldom be possible, and it will be important to allow workers to control their environment by, for example, allowing them to temporarily personalize their workspace.

Personality: Extraversion And Introversion

It has been suggested that the modern office has been “designed for extraverts.” This may be bad news for introverts; when an individual’s personality is matched with the nature of their work environment, they are likely to report less anxiety and physical discomfort but more job satisfaction and social support. Many modern office trends, while not always moving towards the preferences of extraverts, seem to be moving away from the preferences of introverts. (See Figure 1 below.)

Psychology Of Workplace Design
Figure 1


By creating a workplace that is less conducive to job satisfaction and happiness at work amongst introverts, organizations risk demotivating half of their workforce. However, there are several steps that organizations can take to counteract these negative effects, including:

  • Create quiet areas. Both introverts and extraverts can appreciate these spaces. Ensure that these spaces can legitimately be used as individual quiet spaces and not just as ‘meeting rooms’; private pods or booths may work well here.
  • Where possible, consider providing separate individual and group working spaces and multipurpose, social spaces. In our research, the presence of either made a difference to how positive individuals felt about their work, including how likely they were to be looking for a new job and how satisfied they were with their work environment.• Create the illusion of smallness and intimacy by careful attention to design
    and layout.

    open-plan offices, Workplace Design
    Now may be an ideal time for organizations to consider how they can reconfigure their office space as employees return to the office. (Photo: Adobe Stock / Jairo)
  • Create dedicated spaces for extraverts. Extraverts should have access to spaces where they can be loud without distracting introverts or anyone else trying to focus in the office. Many people, including introverts, enjoy at least some time when they can socialize, talk with or just be around co-workers. Look at the way that ‘traffic’ moves around the office, and place spaces in the areas people gravitate toward.
  • Don’t move people’s location without good, and clearly stated, reasons. This should be communicated to staff members as well.
  • Allow people to personalize their work area. In a hot-desking arrangement, ensure that there is the facility to do this.
  • Where possible, move away from individual workspaces containing very large numbers of people. On average, those in workspaces with fewer people are more satisfied with their job and work environment and are happier at work. This relationship exists for everyone but is particularly important for Introverts.
  • Let people personalize their work area. Those who are not allowed to do this are less satisfied with their work environment and report less job satisfaction.
  • Pay attention to the appearance and aesthetics of the workplace. Although this is more important for certain people, for many, it relates to one’s job and work environment satisfaction.
  • In general, create a “blended office.” Due to cost and other reasons, it may not be possible to move away from an open-plan office, but with careful attention to office layout and furniture design, it should be possible to create offices with a mix of spaces that allow both extraverts and introverts to flourish.

Following COVID-19, the shift to working from home, and the subsequent return to the office, now may be an ideal time for organizations to consider how they can reconfigure their office space. This may be a cost-effective way to maintain job satisfaction and retain valuable staff.

Workplace DesignHackston is a chartered psychologist and Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company where he leads the company’s Oxford-based research team. He is a frequent commentator on the effects of personality type on work and life, and has authored numerous studies, published papers in peer-reviewed journals, presented at conferences for organizations such as The British Association for Psychological Type, and has written on various type-related subjects in top outlets such as Harvard Business Review.

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