Article | 11 min read

Where we work shapes how we work. From where we meet to where we sit.

By Suzanne Barnecut

Last updated August 23, 2016

In three years, I’ve moved desks four times, relocating between two buildings and three floors. There have been key differences between each location—some floors were noisier, others had more light—but for the most part, my desk, a blank slate of wide, white surface, was nearly identical in each space. So, too, are the floor plans, where my desk stands with its fellow snowy friends, congregating around cool gray lounge chairs and ceding to a community kitchen. In fact, the next time my team does the desk shuffle, I can be assured that my experience of coming to work will remain largely unchanged.

Of course, this is intentional and not uncommon at a growing tech company. Every detail is designed to create consistency, to convey brand identity, and to reflect company values—whether that’s by bringing amenities into a space to keep people in the office, or by leaving a space slightly lacking, even uncomfortable, to push employees back out into the world.

But our workspaces are, ideally, designed to do more than that. Where we work inevitably shapes how we work, and how we build relationships with our colleagues, our customers, and our larger communities. We don’t even need science—just a quick gut check— Every attribute of a physical space, from ceiling height to seating choice, affects our happiness, productivity, and ability to collaborate.

Where we work inevitably shapes how we work, and how we build relationships with our colleagues, our customers, and our larger communities.

Technology enables mobility

Today’s office culture isn’t strictly business. As much as companies might promote work-life balance or work-life fit, there’s increasingly less delineation between life at home and life at work. Thanks to wifi, laptops, and smartphones, we can take work with us. This is evidenced in our habits—checking email while on vacation, or going to yoga during the day only to finish a work project at night—as well as in our workspaces. Anyone working in a “traditional” office, relying on a computer and phone, is no longer tied to their desk. In fact, studies show that workers are not at their desks 50-60 percent of the time, and many Fortune 1000 companies are re-envisioning their workspaces as a result.

Not only are workers abandoning their desks, but many are abandoning the office altogether. As reported by in January of 2016, the number of non-self-employed workers who regularly work at home has grown by 103 percent since 2005.

Numbers like this leave little doubt that many of us appreciate the flexibility and freedom of being able to work from where we choose, when we choose. Mobility places an emphasis on the quality and dependability of work, while location takes a back seat. And while some people are better suited to working remotely, it’s also true that some offices don’t provide an atmosphere that supports productivity.

The origins (and demise) of the cubicle

Today, as many as 70 percent of modern offices have an open floor plan, calling to mind words like “airy” and “transparent” and “collaborative”—all words that challenge cubicle life, now something relegated to pre-Millennial times and the bygone era of the bland business parks.

Yet today’s open office culture is actually a throwback to the 1950s and ‘60s. If you watched Mad Men, then you have a good picture of office culture and layout at the time. Or consider the film The Apartment, where we get a glimpse into large rooms of typists clacking away at breakneck speed. Office life was, invariably, loud.

An office furniture designer by the name of Robert Propst designed the cubicle as an answer to the problem Probst unveiled his creative, flexible three-walled design, called “Action Office II,” in 1968. At the time, and for a long time, it was widely adopted and considered an early example of progressive office design-thinking.

The cubicle, as it later became known, was even named the most successful design of the previous 25 years at the 1985 World Design Conference. Companies found they could easily reconfigure spaces around business needs and still offer employees privacy and a buffer from visual and noise distractions.

What’s curious, however, is that how we perceive a space can be just as important as how we actually fare within it. According to Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, the economic climate of the 1980s and 90s—marked by corporate mergers and mass layoffs—began to erode the perceived safety of the cubicle. Instead of being a space where meaningful work could be done, independently, workers began to view the cubicle as a place of confinement and disposability.

Instead of being a space where meaningful work could be done, independently, workers began to view the cubicle as a place of confinement and disposability.

How your physical space affects productivity

That the noise levels, distraction, and lack of privacy associated with open-plan offices both lowers productivity and affects an employee’s well-being has been well-documented. In The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova dove into several studies reviewing “the open-office trap” that many of us had gotten entangled in.

Organizational psychologist Matthew David revealed that while open offices “often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.”

And, as it turns out, maybe there are reasons beyond stature that executives are given private offices. Research revealed that the more senior the employee, the more they were affected by the open office environment. Open-plan offices also lead to employees needing to take more sick time.

It’s interesting that we know this, and yet, from the top down, persist in creating ever-cooler open-plan offices. Yet, maybe, that’s not entirely what’s happening today. Some would argue that workplace design is experiencing an evolution, driven by increased mobility and the demands of the workforce, as companies are pressed to solve difficult questions about space in order to promote productivity and to attract and retain talent.

Home offices, and offices like home

A decade ago, an office with a fire pole or a slide between floors might have seemed hip and fun, but today’s workspace design is moving into a stage of maturity. As Melissa Hanley, Principal & CEO of Blitz, shared at a recent event hosted by Work Design magazine, some companies are “bringing a grown-up attitude to a space” and “moving the conversation forward about what a workspace should be” by considering how the space will be used and by making an investment in the people who will be using the space. Spaces should be human scale, comfortable, and should feel intuitive, she explained.

A decade ago, an office with a fire pole or a slide between floors might have seemed hip and fun, but today’s workspace design is moving into a stage of maturity.

It’s not just about the space. Designers have to think through the ways people communicate with a space as they make their way through a day. What tasks do they need to accomplish? How will they primarily communicate—in agile, quick stand-ups or in a large room with a whiteboard? Or, does the population need to work, mostly, solo? The answers to these questions will vary within a company from team-to-team, and it’s a big part of why today’s modern office provides a lot of choices, whether it be lounge areas, private booths, event spaces, or community tables.

Another major trend is to make the modern office feel less like an office. “Companies are trying to create really rich office environments that feel much closer to the richness of a home, as opposed to a stale and stripped back office environment,” explained Raphael Güller, Zendesk’s Global Interior Experience Manager.

In some cases this means bringing in elements of the outdoors—reclaimed wood and plants—or by adding more texture and pattern, like nice couches with throw pillows. In fact, for those of us living the IKEA life, it’s possible that the lounge areas at work are nicer than our living rooms at home.

But does it work? Do employees feel more comfortable and relaxed at work? Does it entice them to spend more time in the office? It’s hard to say.

I talked with a friend who prefers to work from home. “When I think about why I work better from home,” she shared, “it’s because I always work from my bed. It’s just where I do my best work.” Having realized this, she researched ways she might make her desk in the office more comfortable. Since she sits against a wall, she plans to try working from the floor, using a soft cushion. It’s something her company will accommodate considering that other employees have brought in their own stationary bike seats, exercise balls, and other accouterments including (but not limited to), framed photos or personal bottles of whiskey and bar supplies.

Embracing choice beyond the office

There are many things we can’t control about where we work—decisions made for us, or parameters that come with the buildings our companies lease. Ceiling height, for example, when it’s notably high or low, can inspire creativity and innovation or contribute to feelings of confinement. Fluorescent lights can cause migraines, alter our circadian rhythms and menstrual cycles, increase stress levels and generally impact our health—which is perhaps why window seats are a hot commodity. And if our desk-neighbor is a bit of a hoarder, it turns out that cluttered workspaces are bad for our brains, too. (Marie Kondo fans everywhere can cheer!) The point is, the physical attributes of a space affect our ability to work whether we’re in the office or at home.

It’s the element of choice and control that can make working from home so attractive. You can choose where you sit, when and what you eat, and whether to turn the heater up or the stereo down. And unless your home is dark, claustrophobic, and a mess, it stands a chance that you can be reasonably productive there.

Many remote workers prefer to get out of their homes, but still have no desire to come to the office—the company’s office, that is—instead, preferring coworking space. While coworking sounds like many of our corporate offices—open floorplans with lounge chairs and community kitchens—it offers remote workers both flexibility and choice, as well as an antidote to isolation. Workers can move from desk to desk, or from desk to closed door space, while still reaping the social benefits of an office environment.

As reported by the Harvard Business Review, people who belong to coworking spaces thrive more than people who work in traditional offices. Why? Well, the reasons can vary, but coworking is heavily used by independent freelancers who tend to find their jobs more meaningful than regular employees. They have direct control over when and where they work, and can choose the structure of an office when they need it. There’s also less competition and politics, and the option to lend their skill set, or just their companionship, to the larger community.

In some ways, this is where in-office trends are going, too—with more multipurpose workspaces that provide options for autonomy and collaboration. We might even see unassigned seating or oval-shaped desks (more like our kitchen tables?) for better meeting spaces.

The world is your oyster

At the event hosted by Work Design magazine, Donnette Clarens, senior managing director at Newmark Cornish & Carey, aptly stated that embracing choice in the workplace can begin with making a decision to be different. What do your employees need to feel supported? What values does your workspace need to embody? There’s no one right answer—there just has to be enough choice to satisfy everyone in the population.

“Quality offices that staff likes to be in, that inspire them, and that reflect your brand values will enable us all to do really good work,” Güller said. “But I think it can be dangerous to be caught up in one little-standardized world or universe that you’ve created,” he added. “Then you’re missing out on what’s happening outside, and all those inspirational influences and important conversations and networks just over your doorstep.”

In a sense, Which maybe, today, it is. In any case, most employees spend so much of their day at work that office space is hardly a sunk cost. “I think if you get that right,” he said, “it really shapes the company from the inside out, and therefore also the service you provide.”

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