The average American spends 47 hours per week at work but has little control over his or her workspace. In an essay for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan evaluates the effects of four types of office designs: open-plan designs, cubicles, private offices, and "flow."
Leeds University socio-technical systems lecturer Matthew Davis says open spaces can be good for productivity when employees are completing routine tasks like emailing, because watching others be simultaneously productive can be motivating. In addition, a literature review Davis conducted found that a wall-free environment improved relationships between employees and managers.
However, an open space can hamper productivity for someone working on a long-term assignment that requires much thought and concentration. Davis notes that noise and distractions like phone calls and people walking throughout the room can be "damaging." Furthermore, not all individuals' personalities are suited for constant interaction and some studies have found that employees exposed to background noise appear more stressed and "frazzled."
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Meanwhile, a Steelcase survey of workers in the United States, China, India, and across Europe, found that workers in open-plan offices generally wanted more privacy, but respondents did not always agree on which situations and for what reasons they wanted it.
For instance, the American respondents said they did not like the openness of the workspace because they needed "refuge" from their coworkers' phone calls and wandering eyes. One respondent said she did not feel comfortable eating dessert at her desk because she felt judged by her fellow workers.
However, the majority of workers in open-plan settings in China desired privacy so they could escape their manager for a time.
Senior research designer Melanie Redman says, "Open-plan only works if employees have ways to move and a place to move to." She notes that workers can sometimes become overstimulated in such environments.
As such, more open-plan offices are shifting towards "activity-based working," which allows for employees to move to different types of floor plans and desk spaces. For instance, one workplace might have a standing table for workers who wish to work while standing, several small meeting rooms, a soundproof booth for phone calls, and an assortment of sitting desks.
A 2001 study found that cubicles were the "worst performers across every measure" in a workplace satisfaction survey, including privacy, concentration, and productivity.
Davis says that, with cubicles "you have most of the problems of the open plan, without the benefits of being able to interact easily with other people."
While open spaces and cubicles both present challenges related to noise and information overload, some say the tranquility of a private office can be just as stressful and make a person feel isolated.
Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology at the University College London, notes that even people who work from private offices can lose focus. "If you are putting yourself in a quiet place, if you are a distractible personality, you will create your own source of distraction via mind-wandering," he says.
The "Flow" optimal office, designed by Steelcase and expert Susan Cain, was created especially for introverts. The walls are translucent and soundproof and the space includes "quiet spaces" with couches and reclining chairs, as well as conference rooms for collaborative projects.
The space was designed to be the perfect office space, but Khazan, who spent a day working from a prototype of the space, says the design is not without its flaws.
For instance, she notes that no one could see her during the day, so she did not have the guilt associated with getting off task. As a result, she found that she was less productive. She also called the silence "deafening," and says that she was "grateful to see people" mid-way through the day.
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However, she expressed appreciation for being able to move from space to space, using a high-top table, reclining chair, and window seat throughout the day.
Is there a happy medium?
Khazan concludes, "The key to pleasing workers of varying levels of misanthropy ... is to offer different types of workspaces that are tailored for different tasks, and then to allow employees to move among them throughout the day."
However, Redman says, "We're wired to be social, but we're also wired to be individuals [and] [w]e're constantly navigating that boundary." Therefore, it is necessary for companies to lay out guidelines for how workers should rotate through rooms and minimize distractions. For instance, workers may be required to sign up for certain workspaces.
Davis urges companies to consult with employees when redesigning an office to ensure that their needs are being taken into account. "It all goes back to the caveman thing. We have a really innate instant about space and making things our own," he says. Redman adds, "The stress comes when we don't have control over how we give our time" (Khazan, The Atlantic, 11/20).
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