Mark Burnard, M.S., Florida International University; Valentina Bruk-Lee, Ph.D., Florida International University

Informed by person-environment fit theory, the primary objectives of this research were two-fold: to investigate the effects of open-plan office settings and the effects of control and employee voice on the job attitudes and well-being of autistic employees. As such, elements of both the physical and psychosocial environment in the office context were investigated. We expected that autistic employees in enclosed offices would have more positive attitudes and higher well-being than their counterparts in open-plan offices. Additionally, we expected that autistic employees who experienced higher perceived control and employee voice would also experience more positive attitudes and well-being.

Open-plan offices can be defined as workplace configurations in which private offices are kept to a minimum, and most employees work within one room. In effect, open-plan offices are said to reduce annual leasing costs (Kubba, 2003; Kuljanin, 2014) and increase collaboration (De Paoli & Ropo, 2017; Tu’inukuafe, 2016). Despite the supposed benefits of open-plan offices, researchers have failed to investigate what its implications are for autistic people, who commonly face obstacles with neurotypical standards of social interaction and may experience hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (Ashwin, Ashwin, Rhydderch, Howells, & Baron-cohen, 2009; Lai et al., 2017; Landon, Shepherd, & Lodhia, 2016; Orekhova et al., 2012; Stiegler & Davis, 2010). This is despite popular and legal press shining light on the ways in which office environments can be hostile to autistic employees (Baska, 2019; Dominus, 2019). For instance, artificial lights, ambient cacophony, and other types of interruptions are among some of the common sensory complaints at offices, which result from reduced privacy (Kaarlela-Tuomaala, Helenius, Keskinen, & Hongisto, 2009; Kim & de Dear, 2013).

Organizational practices aimed at satisfying the needs of this population, consequently fostering person-environment fit, are ways an employer can promote integration and reduce office setting obstacles for autistic employees. For instance, the degree of control that individual employees are given over their environment and job can mitigate the deleterious effects of workplace stressors (Bakker & Demerouti, 2017; Spector, 1998). Additionally, the provision of voice mechanisms, whether formal (i.e., employee surveys, suggestion receptacles) or informal (i.e., meetings, email) within organizations is instrumental to ensuring that supervisors and ethical leaders acknowledge the concerns of their personnel (McDonnell, Connell, Hannif, & Burgess, 2014). As such, this study also investigated the relationship between control, employee voice, and the attitudes and well-being of autistic employees in an office environment to identify practices employers can engage in.

A cross-sectional survey design was used to collect data from 100 autistic participants across a range of industries and countries (e.g., USA, Canada, UK, Australia) to test office type group differences with independent t-Tests on distractions, environmental satisfaction, job satisfaction, burnout, and affective commitment. Bivariate regression models were also tested, with control and employee voice as the independent variables and environmental satisfaction, job satisfaction, burnout, affective commitment as the outcomes. All analyses were conducted in R statistical programming software.

Results revealed that autistic employees who work in open-plan offices experienced more distractions and less environmental satisfaction, affective commitment than their counterparts in enclosed offices. Both control and employee voice had significant and positive relationships with environmental and job satisfaction, affective commitment, and significant inverse relationships with burnout.

The data reveal that autistic employees find open-plan office environments significantly more distracting and less environmentally satisfying than enclosed offices. Moreover, the data indicate that the employees in open-plan offices experience lower levels of affective commitment for the employers they work for. This agrees with environmental psychology literature investigating the effects that open-plan office environments have on the psychological outcomes in samples not explicitly characterized by neurodivergence (Davis, Leach, & Clegg, 2011; Haapakangas et al., 2018). This is cause for concern given that aspects the physical workplace environment can compromise person-environment fit for an already vocationally ostracized population and underserved labor market. Organizational practices deserve just as much attention due to neurodiverse populations commonly facing systemic barriers that are social in nature (Patton, 2019). Office environments in which autistic employees feel they can alter and adjust their workspace and utilize voice mechanisms to communicate suggestions or criticisms create settings in which employee psychosocial needs are met, and thus foster positive attitudes and well-being.

Employers may use the insights from this study to inform potential workplace modifications to support their autistic employees. To address open-plan issues, employers may need to consider authorizing the use of noise-cancelling headphones, hybrid remote and in-person schedules, and moving the employee’s workspace to a location with less environmental distractions. Control over one’s workspace elements (i.e., lighting, furniture) and interpersonal communication (i.e., communication mediums), as well as the provision of voice mechanisms (i.e., suggestion receptacles, surveys) are instrumental in spotlighting the views of an often-marginalized population.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Applied research, Diversity and Inclusion in a Changing Workforce, Empirical study, Job Attitudes; Turnover; and Retention, Minority and Immigrant Workers, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Organizational Practices, Psychological and Biological Effects of Job Stress, Research-to-practice, Social and Organizational Environment, Workplace Diversity and Health Disparities, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery