Thursday, January 11, 2018

Working Spaces

Working Spaces
by Bryan J. Neva, Sr.

Growing up in a large family in a small, three bedroom, one bathroom home, we never got much privacy or personal space. If we wanted that we'd have to go outside for awhile (weather permitting). We'd do our homework on the kitchen table with the TV on while mom cooked dinner. But that was normal for families back in the 1960s and 70s.  So it wasn't a big deal for me to go from that to an even more crowded, confining, communal environment when I served in the navy.

Wanting some alone time, I would search all over the ship just to find a little space where I could hide out for awhile and read a book. Once I found a lighted, watertight escape-way and used that quite often until we got a warning message from the 6th fleet headquarters about a sailor who did what I did but died of asphyxiation after he mistakenly sealed the watertight hatch behind him and ran out of oxygen. Oops!

My first professional job out of college had an industrial, open space working environment similar to a classroom with metal desks lined in rows. The boss had his own private office at the head of the classroom. (Managers were the only ones entitled to a little privacy.) It was noisy with a lot of needless conversation and banter. It was hard to get anything done or hope for any sort of privacy. The only quiet space I could find was in the dimly lit CAD room where I'd work on engineering drawings or other projects if the room wasn't too busy.

Recognizing that studies have found a strong correlation between working spaces and job satisfaction, firms in the 1990s and 2000s began to improve working spaces with the introduction of cubicles and teleworking. These provided quieter, more private working environments. 

Cubicles have their own drawbacks though as workers feel they're working in a sterile, isolated matrix. It's kind of like Orwell's novel "1984" or the film "Gattaca" with "Big Brother" watching our every move. Many firms that favor cubicles typically practice "warm body management": that is, if there's a warm body sitting in a cubicle, breathing air, exhaling carbon dioxide, and creating heat, they must be productive. It's dehumanizing as workers feel they're just a unit of production or a rat trapped in a maze searching for a piece of cheese.

The drawback with teleworking is that you have no face-to-face interaction with colleagues. The only thing you can do is work. Long-term teleworkers have discovered that working from home can be really lonely and career limiting as they miss out on friendships and networking opportunities. The dirty little secret about teleworking is that you actually work harder and longer than if you were in an office. Research has shown that people who telework are 15% more productive than people who work in open spaces and cubicles. Nevertheless, about three-quarters of U.S. firms still prefer to use open spaces and cubicles.

Searching for the optimal working space that will maximize the productivity, success and overall job satisfaction of their employees, some firms have discovered a simple concept that has been right in front of the whole time: giving all workers, not just managers, a private office complete with four walls, a door, and maybe a window. Studies have found that between 50% and 60% of all workers in open spaces and cubicles are dissatisfied with their working spaces while only 16% of workers with private offices are dissatisfied. 

Many progressive start-up firms today are experimenting with modified versions of open communal working spaces. They try to make the working environment more like home with free drinks, snacks, breakfast, lunch, ping-pong, foosball, video games, workout facilities, and beer after work. Workers can lounge around on comfortable sofas, easy chairs, or sit at a table to perform their work. No one is assigned a permanent desk to work at. The idea being that if they make the working space fun and more like home then workers will be more productive or maybe even work much more than 40 hours a week. Many employees at high-tech, silicon valley firms practically live at work. Work and life become integrated.

So what's the best working space? It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish, the type of workers you have, and your budget. The cheapest most productive working space is teleworking. The least productive is open spaces followed by cubicles. Although still less productive than teleworking, private offices are far more productive than open spaces and cubicles but are the most expensive of all the working spaces. But each of these working spaces has their own place. Where team interaction and collaboration needs to be high, open spaces would be preferable. When you want to minimize noise and distractions, cubicles, private offices, and teleworking would be preferable. 

Problems arise when firms use a one-size-fits-all strategy for working spaces where only managers are accorded the privilege and prestige of a private office. But if a manager needs high interaction with his team, then why put them in a private office? When private conversations occur they can just use a conference room. 

The search for the ideal working space continues with firms experimenting with different models. And with a new generation of workers will come innovative new ideas. I suspect that in twenty years working spaces won't look anything like they do today. Nevertheless, firms need to answer one big rhetorical question when they choose what type of working spaces they want for their employees: are you trying to get the most out of your employees or are you trying to get the best?

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