A Better Way to Work

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about open office floor plans and cubicles. Both apparently are terrible for everything from health to productivity (and one will apparently kill you). The debate between which is better, is obsolete. We can’t find the right answer because we aren’t asking the right questions. The workspace has changed, it will continue to change and as such we must conceive of a completely different set of parameters in which to discuss and develop new workspaces and technologies.

Ye Office Space

The cubicle as we know it was created by Robert Propst, you should know this so you can impress your friends at parties and because Propst later came to loathe the way his invention was implemented. No one likes cube farms because they make people feel like animals trapped in a pen, while the higher level employs are left to lord over them from the comforts of their corner office. I mean, I couldn’t be the only to feel that way?

It’s difficult to feel like an individual in a cubicle. Instead, you end up feeling like just another number, an employee taking up valuable office real estate. Private offices are not without their drawbacks. They make people feel as if they aren’t part of the action, they feel secluded from everything that happens outside their door. There’s also the problem of the Allen curve, which states that interactions between people decrease as the distance between them increases. That’s why people who work on different floors tend to have very few interactions with one another.

Then you have the open office space, the solution to the cube farm that wasn’t. The problem with open spaces is just that, there’s too much openness. People no longer feel like they have the privacy to have off-the-cuff conversations. Those who choose to speak have an audience and those who don’t want to listen are forced to contend with the aggravation or put on headphones. That kind of speech (the kind which you can’t tune out and can’t quite hear) dampens cognitive performance by as much as 5-10%.

“Speech is the most distracting sound source since it occurs unpredictably, its loudness is varying and it has the highest possible information content. After speech, distraction is caused also by phone ringing tones, footsteps and other activities.”–icben.org

What is so important about interacting and talking though? Shouldn’t everyone be working?

Informal communication between employees actually helps people be more productive. It helps to transmit the culture of a workplace, fosters cooperation, and encourages collaboration. I mean, let’s not forget that we need to communicate in order to survive. Interaction leads to innovation.

Where exactly does this leave us? Well there was a great article in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago that discussed the 3 P’s neccessary for employee interaction: Proximity, Privacy, and Permission. These 3 P’s tell us a lot about how we should set up our offices.

Proximity

Conversations that happen around copy machines, printers, and coffee makers serve vital functions. They help to foster a welcoming, communicative, and open work environment. Workplace activities like these help to reinforce, refine, and generate new forms of knowledge. Placing commonly used work equipment in high traffic communal areas will increase the likelihood of informal communication occurring while providing minimal interruption to others working.

Privacy

The average square feet each employee has to themselves has decreased from 225 to 176 in recent years. This is projected to decrease to 100 by the year 2017. To increase proximity, employers have decreased the amount of privacy that workers have and all of that, puts a real hit on productivity. Studies show that when employees lack privacy the types of communications they have tend to be shorter and more superficial. People should have a choice in how, when, and where conversations and communication occur.

Permission

I had this one office manager, who would pace up and down the hallways all day, scorning anyone who was out of their seat. Any time we lingered anywhere for too long, we would receive an “All-Staff” e-mail reminding us to not be out of our seats. People need to feel like they have permission to speak to one another, they need to see it replicated and endorsed by upper management.

What people don’t realize–HBR points out–is that even minuscule changes to the workplace can have a huge impact on employees. Designing a workspace is no easy task. The debate between which is better the cubicle or the open workspace is a moot one. The arguments don’t address the fundamental problems that exist within most workplaces. So, let’s address some of them now.

The workspace is more than just furniture

As Allison Arieff properly points out in the New York Times the problems that currently exist with both open office spaces and cube farms can’t be solved through furniture alone. Are the workspaces we are creating now sustainable for the future direction of our workforce? That future direction would appear to be towards flextime and remote working.

“The traditional office was designed for employees to be individual contributors. How often do you hear that term being used today? Now, we live in a global economy, and one increasingly based on intellectual and social capital. The workplace we live in increasingly includes global virtual teams, working on mobile devices that don’t need to be plugged into any one fixed desk.”–Jeanne Meister, Forbes

If you are going to have a flexible work environment you need to do the following:

  1. Make communication easy– At work, communication should be as effortless as possible. You can do this by using a combination of resources (chat, e-mail, video conferencing). This can increase team autonomy and coordination. Encouraging employees to use a variety of messaging systems allows people with different communication or work styles to feel empowered and connected.
  2. Always be refining–conduct research and feedback surveys to find out how to better institute flexible workspace policies and to fix/scrap what isn’t working and amplify what is. Finding a balance for what works best for your company is what is important, but you won’t know what’s working unless you ask.
  3. Track benefitswhat do you want to accomplish? If you want to increase openness or retention, than you need to have the systems in place for tracking this. For instance, the health insurance company Aetna wanted to increase employee retention by offering more flexible work schedules. They discovered that employee turnover for remote workers was 2-3% compared with the company average of 8%. Tracking this metric helps the company discover new ways to keep their employees and bottom line happy.

Promoting proximity, privacy, and permission in physical spaces (aka affordances)

J.J. Gibson is the man we may credit for our understanding of affordances, he was a perceptual psychologist in the 1970’s.

“The affordances of an environment are the possibilities for action called forth by it to a perceiving subject.”–Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks

What does that even mean? It is the handle on a tea pot. You see that handle and almost instinctively know to grasp it–that’s an affordance. Workspaces require affordances to produce and promote productivity and informal communication. It’s important to provide people with reasons (either explicitly or otherwise) to interact with others and their work environments.

How a physical space is set up impacts how we interact with it (as does the social significance we attach to it). Take the water-cooler. There’s nothing attached to the water-cooler that says, “Please gather around me.” The cooler provides people with a reason to stand there and talk, almost like a conduit for conversation.

Task-specific zones can help you create affordances within your workspace. Meeting rooms, social areas, and quiet zones can help achieve a good balance point between proximity, privacy, and permission. A great example comes to us from the offices of Turnstone. They found out that using zones enabled people the freedom to work in the areas that suited them the best. Their offices are set up to promote movement with the task-specific zones distributed evenly through out the workspace.

While there is no ‘one size fits all,’ the people at Turnstone have acted with clear intention and understand how their employees utilize with their workspace, and that is half the battle. Turnstone knows that not every employee (like introverts) wants to be out in the open. The future will trend towards more dynamic workspaces.

Workplace flexibility

A workplace must reflect the culture of a company. When it doesn’t, employees don’t know how to interact with and conduct themselves inside their work environment. Unclear company organization causes employees to feel confusion and mistrust. That’s why flexibility must be incorporated into the fabric of a company. It can’t just be lip service or a section thrown into a company manual to try to appease prospective employees.

The law firm I worked for promoted flex-work but made impossible for anyone to actually take advantage of. As Belle Beth Cooper pointed out in a recent article, giving employees autonomy and then taking it away (or not delivering) damages morale and motivation.

There is a perception that incorporating workplace flexibility costs a lot of money or is too difficult to manage or implement. It’s an incorrect perception and one that continues to prevent the widespread implementation of flexible workspaces. In reality, it reduces absenteeism, turnover rates, and increases productivity. Individual needs and organizational needs are not mutually exclusive.

According to The White House, employees who have access to flexible workspaces/schedules are happier, healthier, and stay at companies longer–and yes this applies to both small companies and Fortune-500s. Quite simply, we are running out of excuses for not offering flexible workspaces and schedules.

The evidence is there but we need the follow-through and leadership to make these workspaces a reality. As the economy continues to change, as our workforce continues to change, we must ask ourselves, who and what we want to be. What will our offices reflect and what does that say about us as a company? These are questions we must face head-on.


If nothing else, the ‘Battle Royale’ that exists between open-space workplaces and cubicles tells us one very important thing. Everything you think you know about workplaces is changing and will continue to change as we continue to conceive of different means and ways of working. Be firm and project the values and culture of your company. Stand up for and promote informal communication as it is the catalyst for innovation. Ultimately, what we need is not to rehash old debates about whether or not the cubicle or the open-workspace is better, we need a new framework entirely.