As we most of us working in an office, it is generally agreed that our performance at work is strongly shaped by our work environment. And one very important factor at workplace is How the Office is designed.
Going back in time, some 50 to 55 years ago the typical office consisted of a vast open space, with rows and rows of identical desks crammed tightly together. Employees were afforded little in the way of privacy, which was by design.The bullpen office, as it was known, was a natural extension of the factory floor. The goal was to keep everyone visible, as a means of ensuring that they stayed on task. Since then different attempts were done in order to improve work experience in the office.
Around 1968-70 Cubicles were introduced to address the need for personal space and privacy. Unfortunately they achieved neither. In the 1970s, the average worker was allotted 500 square – office space. In 2010, that number was down to 200 square feet. Privacy is hardly fairing much better, while a cubicle’s panels may prevent employees from making eye contact, privacy consists of more than just not seeing someone who sits a few feet away. Acoustic privacy is equally vital. Hearing someone you can’t see can often be more of a distraction than having them in full view.
Studies show that working in a cubicle can be mentally draining psychologically stressful, and physiologically harmful. Being subject to constant disruption, high noise levels, and a lack of personal space elevates our anxiety levels and raises our blood pressure, which takes a toll on the body’s immune system. When employees are continuously stressed, their motivation, performance, and satisfaction are bound to plummet, because they have less energy to bring to their work.
To be fair, the alternatives to cubicles have plenty of downsides of their own. Private offices eat up a lot of real estate, seal employees off from one another, and introduce barriers to communication. Frequently, the higher up in an organization you go, the more space you’re allotted and the more inaccessible you become. Status begets isolation, which can have a crippling effect on teams whose work depends on collaboration. Innovation, it is often argued, comes from spontaneous interaction. It’s hard to have those unplanned encounters when seeing other people requires an Outlook meeting invitation.
In recent years, a growing number of organizations have begun rejecting both the cubicle and the corner/private office, embracing an open-plan layout. Advocates contend that placing everyone in the same location promotes collaboration and fosters better communication. It’s an egalitarian approach that affords every staffer the same amount of space. In a world where success is predicated upon effective team-work, what better way of making sure people work together than by eliminating obstacles to communication and ensuring that everyone is treated equally?
It’s a noble idea. But does it work? The research raises some serious concerns. While open-plan designs may increase communication between colleagues, they often do so at a cost to individual work. When our office is riddled with disruptions, we end up consuming the very mental resources we need to think clearly. Ironically, the frustration we experience when we’re not getting our work done inevitably interferes with our ability to collaborate. It’s hard to feel cheery toward teammates when you constantly feel like you’re behind.
Some also question whether having colleagues so accessible is really such a good thing. Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard. So sure, open spaces might get you a larger number of conversations, but not all communication is equally valuable. And even if communication were an unqualified good, it’s worth remembering that collaboration represents just one facet of what it means to be productive.
All of which should make one thing abundantly clear: If Cubicles, Private Offices and Open Space are none of them the best options to design an office, what is a company to do? Well… alternatives exist, it’s just up to each organization to decide what is better for them.
THE CAVEMAN’S GUIDE TO BUILDING A BETTER OFFICE
Ask the average CEO how to optimize a workspace and they might suggest you consult with an interior designer. Ask the same question of an evolutionary psychologist and he’ll direct you to a very different set of experts: our ancient ancestors.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that many of our current design preferences can be traced back to our shared history on the savanna. We’re drawn to environments that promoted our survival as hunter-gatherers, and feel uneasy in situations that would have put our forefathers at risk. These preferences, they argue, are largely unconscious. We simply experience safe settings as pleasurable and dangerous ones as repellent, without being able to identify exactly why.
One example: Most of us instinctively enjoy sitting in sheltered locations that overlook expansive areas like parks and oceans. Think waterfront property or apartments overlooking Central Park in New York. In the past, the desire for settings that offered security and a view of our surroundings kept us alive and positioned us to find our next meal. Locations offering prospect and refuge are inherently pleasing, while areas that deny us shelter or a view tend to generate discomfort. We no longer need these features in order to survive, yet we can’t help but prefer them.
Brain imaging research demonstrates the deep-seated nature of these preferences: Our desire for prospect and refuge is so strong, it even affects our perception of art. A 2006 study found that the pleasure centers of the brain consistently light up when we’re viewing landscapes, especially when their vantage point is one of refuge. Our desire for safe locations also explains why sitting with our backs exposed can leave us feeling tense. We don’t enjoy having others sneak up on us and seek to minimize potential threat. This is one reason that restaurant booths fill up more quickly than freestanding tables.It seems our ancient ancestors felt the same way.
Another evolutionary insight: We’re happiest when we’re close to outdoors. As hunter-gatherers, being outside was essential to our survival. It meant proximity to food, water, and other people. An extensive body of work reveals that nature is essential for psychological functioning. Having a view of the outdoors has also been shown to promote performance in the workplace. Employees who sit near a window are better at staying on task, show greater interest in their work, and report more loyalty to their company.
Research even suggests that the amount of direct sunlight entering an office can reliably predict the level of employee satisfaction in a workplace. What is it about access to nature that makes us feel better? Some experts believe exposure to sunlight plays a major role. A 2013 study found that employees whose offices have windows sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night than those laboring in windowless rooms. Another study published the same year found that after the sun’s rays hit our skin, our bodies release nitric oxide, a compound that dilates the blood vessels and lowers our blood pressure.
Others believe that the benefits of nature extend beyond the physiological. A number of researchers argue that natural settings are also cognitively rejuvenating and help us restore our mental resources. In contrast to the overwhelming stimulation we often encounter at work, where we’re frequency inundated with calls, e-mails, and text messages for hours on end, natural settings engage our interest but demand very little of our attention. We have the freedom to let our minds wander, noticing as much or as little as we like, entering a state of “soft fascination.” The result is an elevation in mood as well as replenished mental energy that improves our memory and enhances our creativity.
Studies show that the mere presence of plants can also provide surprisingly large benefits. Office workers report feeling healthier and more energized when their workplace features live plants and fresh flowers. When views and plants aren’t available, even reminders of nature appear to help. Research suggests that access to aquariums and fireplaces put us at ease and open us up to connecting with others. Pictures of landscapes make us less anxious. Brief exposure to blue and green, colors ever-present in fertile environments rich in vegetation, water, and nourishment, make us feel safe and improve our creative output. It’s not hard for the evolutionary psychologist to see why so many offices fail to engage their employees. Depriving people of sunlight restricting their views, and seating them with their backs exposed is not a recipe for success-it’s a recipe for chronic anxiety. So is placing workers in expansive rooms, inundating them with stimulation, and failing to provide them with an area for refuge, where they can recover from attention fatigue.
We tend to assume that employee engagement is about the work, that so long as we give talented people challenging tasks and the tools to excel, they will be happy. But that formula is incomplete. Our mind responds to the signals in our environment. And the less comfortable we are while doing our work, the fewer cognitive resources we have available. And this is why design ultimately matters. It’s because engaging employees is about creating an environment that positions people to do their best work. Paleolithic man may be long gone, but he can still teach us a few things when it comes to designing a better workplace.
USING SPACE TO TELL A STORY
Building a workplace that supports employees’ performance is clearly a worthwhile endeavor. But it’s not the only way of using workplace design to benefit an organization. We can compare a company’s use of office space to its “organizational body language” It’s a fitting analogy. When a person says one thing and their body communicates another, listeners are left confused. The same can be said for organizations that claim a particular characteristic but fail to follow through in their interior design. They come across as inauthentic to their employees, whose impressions inevitably trickle down to clients.
The more a company’s message is reinforced in a workplace environment, the easier it is for employees to integrate that vision and relay to the people they meet. This is why so many top organizations now investing in designing interiors that are culturally distinctive and deliver a consistent message-one that the company wants to communicate with the outside world. Workplace design has also become an important tool for attracting and retaining top talent. Studies show that employees use the quality of an office environment to draw inferences about the competence of an organization’s leaders. When a workplace is well designed, employees’ confidence in their management team lifts, as does their willingness to stay on in the years to come.
How do you use design to make an organization feel distinct?
One approach is to borrow a practice used by many successful retailers that involves creating a touchpoint map. Touchpoint anticipate every element of a customer’s experience, from the instant they walk through the door to their final steps back to their car, identifying communication opportunities along the way. The goal is to turn every consumer interaction into a brand experience that reflects the retailer’s message.
If you’ve ever visited an Apple Store, you’ve probably noticed how different it feels from other electronics shops. The decor is clean and uncluttered. There’s no middleman between customers and access to Apple’s products. Registers and the long lines they produce have been eliminated; at the Apple Store just about any employee can cash you out. Every aspect of the Apple Store’s design reflects its brand message: simplicity.
In the same way Apple uses its space to communicate a message to its external customers, organizations can use the workplace environment to send a message to their internal customers. The key is to first identify a message the organization wants to convey-say, innovation insight, or caring-and then design employee touchpoints that bring that concept to life. Lobbies and hallways represent key touchpoint opportunities, ones that can be used for sharing an organization’s history, traditions, and achievements. Often companies limit their design investments to their lobby because it’s the element of their environment that’s most visible to clients. This is a mistake. Anytime there is a disconnect between the front of the house and the heart of the house, there’s the potential for employees to wonder whether their organizational message is simply a facade. Many successful companies have begun using behind-the-scenes space to highlight a commitment to their employees. A related approach, often used by organizations in creative industries, is to put employees’ artwork up on display, presenting them much like an exhibit.
Another way of using a space to engage employees is by getting them personally involved in the design of their workplace. Naming conference rooms is another tool for making a workplace feel unique. When we label a space we create expectations in the minds of visitors that shape their experience. Research shows that when we anticipate having a positive experience, we’re more likely to do so.
Most organizations use generic names for their meeting spaces like Conference Room A and Conference Room B. Not at Poggled, a Chicago company selling Groupon-like bar and club gift certificates. The company is committed to delivering memorable nightlife experiences, which is why, if you’re looking for Poggled’s management team you’ll likely find them in one of two locations: the “It’s 5 o’clock Somewhere,’ or the slightly less formal “Stay Thirsty, My Friends”
Another workplace touchpoint: office furniture. How rooms are furnished communicates an implicit message about which behaviors are appropriate. Interestingly, it’s not just the layout of furniture that affects our experiences-it’s also the physical composition. A 2010 experiment conducted by researchers at MIT Harvard, and Yale found that people seated on hard wooden chairs are less willing to compromise than those seated on chairs with soft cushions. What this finding suggests is that the furniture an organization selects can have an impact on the way a workplace is experienced.
Rather than simply choosing furniture based on its aesthetic appeal, it’s worth considering the way it feels and the message it communicates. Law firms, for example, are often partial to bulky wooden tables and stiff leather chairs. The traditional decor helps communicate stability and trust, which may be useful when conducting a negotiation or persuading a prospective client to use their services. What it’s unlikely to do, however, is help visitors relax, silence their inner censors, and come up with out-of-the-box ideas. Which goes to show: What’s right for one location can be entirely wrong for another. The key is to first think about how a room is going to be used and then build an experience that’s consistent with that objective.
One organizational touchpoint that often gets mysteriously overlooked: the bathroom. Most office restrooms are bleak and unwelcoming. But for many employees, it’s one of the few opportunities they have for stepping away, letting go of trivial details, and refocusing on the bigger picture. Instead of treating bathrooms with disdain, some cutting-edge organizations are now using them as an opportunity for stimulating creativity, by displaying interesting artwork, leaving out thought-provoking magazines, or playing unusual music.
At Google, for example, bathrooms are where employees go to learn. Back in 2007, a group of engineers starred posting interesting articles on bathroom stalls as a means of educating their colleagues about new methods of code testing. The idea caught on, and soon their coworkers began complaining when the material wasn’t being updated quickly enough. To this day, when an engineer at Google says, “Excuse me, I need to go read about testing,’ it’s clear exactly where he’s headed. On the surface, that might seem like just a quirky anecdote. But what it demonstrates is how even a simple bathroom visit can be used to reinforce a company’s commitment to intellectual growth.
A final touchpoint worth considering is the design of an organization’s gathering spaces. Lunchrooms, locker rooms and coffee stations serve important logistical functions, but they also double as vital social hubs. When communal spaces are lacking in a workplace, the quality of employee relationships suffers. In fact, research conducted by Gallup shows that organizations that neglect to build gathering space have half the number of employees with a best friend at work as those that do.
We often give a lot of thought to formal meeting spaces. But often it’s the informal spaces that can have a bigger impact on the quality of our workplace relationships. Offering appealing indoor or outdoor spaces for employees to gather is a vital organizational touchpoint in just about any industry-one that can bolster employee relationships, create networking opportunities, and spark creative interactions.