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Sardine Rage – open plan office work space can create overcrowding and tension!!!

on Thursday, 25 April 2013. Posted in Office Ergonomics

Sardine Rage Picture

With the growth in the use of open-plan offices over the last decade and the resulting reduction of personal work-space, the term "Sardine Rage" has emerged. This rage manifests itself when people begin getting frustrated over a barrage of new noises, unwanted smells, territorial disputes and cramped conditions. We discuss what can be done below.

The evidence that crowded office layouts cause problems

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Managing Director of Resolutions RTK, Richard Kasperczyk said that the key issues around "Sardine Rage" cited by staff in his research were "noise levels, odours - not just body odours - but also food smells when staff would eat at their desk, as well as listening in to discussions which impacted their concentration levels". Kasperczyk also found that when a work place culture was already negative, then close working space becomes another source of conflict.

In a 2008 report in the Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, researchers Oommen, Knowles & Zhao at Queensland University of Technology collated research on working spaces which pointed to many problems with open plan environments. Problems included loss of privacy and identity, various health issues, social overstimulation and low job satisfaction. The research showed that it wasn't only cramped call-centre and service staff who suffered. Almost all highly skilled jobs were more negatively affected by open plan layouts because of the need for more privacy in order to perform at an optimal level. Oommen, Knowles & Zhao explain that that "people who are seated closely together in an open plan work environment may suffer from physiological and psychological reactions such as stress, fatigue, and increased blood pressure levels”.

Key open plan office issues and solutions

1. Noise and the inability to concentrate

Sometimes the sound of a colleague crinkling or rustling paper can annoy a person trying to concentrate. At other times it is the frustration (and embarrassment for them) of having others overhear their more personal phone calls. Some people have found that wearing their ipod earphones have helped to mask these noise disturbances. On the other hand, listening to loud music through an ipod can lead to hearing loss. Good architectural design where breakout meeting rooms are readily available and the use of modern acoustic absorbing materials can help reduce surrounding noise levels.

2. Odours: both body and food smells

As people get physically closer to each other in their work environment, personal hygiene and body odour can become an issue. The other source of odours can be when people eat their lunch at their desk. Sometimes the smell from one person's lunch may not seem that appetizing to a colleague next to them. Some solutions to these odour issues are to ensure that:

  1. there is a culture of encouraging good personal hygiene.
  2. food is banned from the working desk and is only consumed in the lunch room.
  3. the ventilation and air-conditioning systems are well maintained.

3. Personal space

The type of work being completed will often dictate the sort of working space required. There is a modern trend to seek more socialisation and openness within working environments. However for some professions (such as lawyers) where confidentiality is an issue, sufficient personal space still needs to be provided.

How much space is enough?

A report published by Haworth in 2009 stated that how much space is enough “depends partly on national culture, partly on corporate culture, and partly on the science of anthropometrics, or allowing humans comfortable space and room to move”. Basically, offices need to accommodate people physically and let them move while doing their jobs. One comprehensive study published in 1995 by Cohen et al found that the ideal workstation for a full-time computer user was 8.7 feet by 8 feet, based on a U-shape station model.

Minimum size standards vary by country. For example, a Dutch or Danish workstation minimum would be 75 square feet, excluding circulation and filing space. German regulations are 86 square feet, and U.K. offices would average about 65 square feet. In New Zealand, the Occupational Health and Safety standards specify 12 cubic metres as the minimum space that needs to be made available to each person in a working office, equating to a floor area of about 5 square metres. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides no exact measurement requirements for cubicles in the workplace environment. However, the standards require employers and businesses to promote an ergonomically friendly environment to reduce the potential of employee injury.

Paybacks of open plan office layouts

There is no doubt that firms can save money when it comes to reduced floor space requirements, along with reduced space to be air-conditioned and carpeted. For some work teams an open office with close-space working can be of benefit especially when collaboration between people is highly desirable. In addition, many people find their greatest fun and enjoyment at work through informal collegial interactions, something that open plan layouts can help facilitate. According to Richard Kasperczyk, "It all comes down to getting the right balance". That is, "a balance between personal privacy and the need to promote a collaborative approach to team work". Wemight also add sociability here. Balance is also created through the use of spaces such as meeting rooms, breakout rooms, and good lunch-room facilities. The environment also needs to be tailored to the type of work that is done.

Conclusion – Get the mix right in an open plan office workspaces

This article has shown that when designing office layout there needs to be a focus on efficiency and optimal working conditions. As well as cost saving, the focus should be on looking after staff in order to promote positive healthy work environments, where people can concentrate when they need to and socialize when they need to.


Ross Thomson is a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.


ACC & Department of Labour (2010, Nov). Guidelines for using Computers – Preventing and managing discomfort, pain and injury. (ACC 5637)

Cohen, W.J., James, C.A., Taveira, A.D., Karsh, B., Scholz, J., & Smith, M.J. (1995). In G. Salevendy (Eds.), Handbook of human factors and ergonomics (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Oommen, V., Knowles, M. & Zhao, I. (2008). Should Health Service Managers Embrace Open Plan Work Environments? Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management 3(2): 37- 43.

Voss, Judy. (2009, September). White Paper: Revisiting Office Space Standards. Haworth: Changing Nature of Work and Trends.

Tips, training and resources

Staff training: Ergonomic training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of appropriate workplace wellness seminars including "Being a Happy Computer User" that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.

Computer Workstation Desk Assessment and Set up: It is important for the prevention of discomfort, pain and injury that staff workstations and desks are set up correctly. Check out the Joyworkz free practical guide to carry out a workstation assessment. Alternatively, Joyworkz can complete thorough and professional ergonomic workstation assessments for your staff, to ensure that all reasonable risks are mitigated. Joyworkz also offer Computer ergonomic assessment training, popular with large organisations, when staff are trained to perform workstation assessments for their colleagues.

A wellness programme: Consider a workplace health challenge to get employees moving. If you need help getting started designing a made to measure wellness programme, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ consultancy package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.

HabitatWork (ACC): HabitAtWork is a free online educational tool promoting self-help and problem solving for preventing and managing discomfort, pain and injury.

Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the Alsco Computer Users Health Guide poster can be printed out and kept visible for staff.

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