The Importance of Working Environments

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What Works Best for You?  The Importance of Working Environments

Look around you—do you have a cubicle, standing desk, or are you reading this on a mobile device?  As the boundaries between “living to work, and working to live” stretch, working environments are changing fast to keep up.

Just like clothes and music, office settings go in and out of style.  Depending on when you entered the workforce (and your industry), you may have had a traditional office, a nook, cubicle, or the kind of communal work spaces associated with contemporary start-ups.

How your office space came to be

Privacy, productivity, and economy drive how your work space looks.  While much maligned, the cubicle was originally a measure to break up the rows of desks at which workers in the earlier 1900’s earned their pay.

The rows of desk evolved out of a tradition of tight, closed, offices.  Designers in the era of Frank Lloyd Wright sought to liberate office workers by taking down the walls. Rows of clerical desks lowered the costs associated with individual offices and gave employers opportunity to keep an eye on many more workers at once.

That changed in the 1950’s.  From the crowded rows of individual desks, German design group Quickborner created an office plan that grouped desks together, added partitions for privacy, and introduced indoor plants to create an “office landscape.”  The idea, developed further by Michigan furniture company Herman Miller, morphed into the “Action Office system.”  The company promotes the system today, breaking up spaces with functional furniture, mobile partitioning, and other features.

From there, the world of the cubicle arrived—small working spaces that offered some privacy, but also fit more people into the floor plan. Over time, the often dull-colored partitions, lack of natural light, and repetitive office view fueled a return to the idea of the open office.

With the business model of the start-up came offices focused on boosting collaboration and saving on office costs.  Many people can work at a long table, saving rent, utility, and furniture costs.  Close spaces mean ideas move quickly without the inhibition and silence of a cubicle world. Yet even as the open office, often with rows of people sitting at tables side-by-side, becomes a norm, it too is being disrupted.

What is old is new again—the advantages and disadvantages of open office spaces 

While open office environments deliver on some expectations, there are downsides to the arrangement.

In an open office setting, being able to house more workers in tight quarters means lower rent costs. Computer tables may be less expensive than modular office equipment pieces.  With the right company culture, ideas and thoughts are shared without difficulty, sometimes leading to a faster developmental process.

Studied extensively in the past decade, the open office may be an effective germinator of ideas, and developmental processes, but it may not be the best setting for productive humans.  A couple of reasons why include:

  • Shared space means more sick time: Infections spread more quickly any time of year in an open office setting.  One study estimates occupants of open office settings, with more than six persons, have 62 percent more sick days than those in single offices.  Shared surfaces, tools, and air means increased rates of infection.
  • More may not mean better: While collaborative spaces improve design and other creative processes, they don’t necessarily boost the productivity of individuals when it is time to get work done.  Open settings with little privacy can disrupt productivity.  People have preferences in terms of light, temperature, and arrangement of their work spaces.  Open office settings may work for those who need no sense of space, or who are able to work in noisy settings.  For those who require privacy and quiet focus to be productive, a company with only an open office setting is a poor employment choice.

So where is this going?

Research from office furniture maker Herman Miller discusses “coworking” as a “window into the future of work.”  Coworking spaces are those designed for the specific type of work, and the type of people who do the work.  Containing collaborative hubs as well as quieter work spaces, the direction is toward “fluid and permeable spaces that encourage interaction and leverage collective intelligence.”

This kind of hybrid office also anticipates making work spaces more like living spaces. For remote workers, that means making living spaces more like work environments, blurring further the work/life balance.

As demand for human creativity and productivity steepens, even as routinized work slips toward automation, the quality—and costs—of our working spaces continue to evolve.

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