Office Seating Arrangements and Privacy Part 1

How do office seating arrangements impact the day-to-day experience of office workers? Let’s have a look at how office layouts and workstations have changed over the past 100 years—and what this has meant for individual employee privacy.

At the dawn of the 20th century, white collar clerical work and “knowledge work” was becoming a more and more important part of commerce. Businesses had moved to a centralized administrative structure that allowed them to house white collar staff together for easier management and oversight. This led to some interesting experimentation with office layouts. Putting a large number of people in the same room to work on different tasks was definitely not the same as designing a factory assembly line where everyone worked toward the same goal. Here are some of the ideas that have been tried over the years to make the office space efficient and productive.

The School of Work

In a 2009 Wired Magazine article, Cliff Kuang takes us through an interesting pictorial representation of office seating arrangements from the early 1900s through today. The first highly regimented layout with row upon row of desks was reminiscent of a school—only with no teacher at the front. Everyone worked with someone (literally) peering over their shoulder from a desk immediately behind them. There was little real privacy for anyone except the bosses who had private offices from which they could oversee work on the “production” floor.

Breaking up the Workforce

The early 1960s saw an uptick in more innovative seating arrangements, with different tasks being supported with varying layouts. Workers who needed to focus might sit in rows so they could more easily ignore one another. Those who were expected to collaborate might gather in clusters. Panel systems had not yet been developed, so there was nothing to dampen noise or create visual privacy. This was the time of the bull-pen office, with its hustle and bustle. While some people still look back on this era with fondness, it wasn’t a layout that was well-suited to very many industries.

Cubicles Create the First Mini-Office

Individual workstations with dividers (Action Offices) were introduced in the late sixties and have been arranged in a huge variety of ways ever since. They’ve gone from pods to rows and back again, changing shape from squares to honeycombs and other novel office seating arrangements. Dividers started out fairly low, but got higher over time to simulate office walls. The improvement in visual privacy was immediate, while the ability to dampen distracting noise improved with the development of acoustic materials.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll look at what happened after the cubicle began to fall from favor.

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Does White Noise in the Office Cause Stress?

Using white noise in the office is a commonly suggested remedy for covering up intrusive sounds at work. But that might be like prescribing a medicine with side effects as bad as the illness it’s designed to treat. Let’s explore a different perspective on whether white noise is really beneficial or if it just adds to the burden of excess noise in the workplace.

Why Is White Noise Recommended?

It’s very well established that noise in the workplace is a major source of stress. Unwanted noise is distracting and can be associated with low morale, poor health, and a number of other issues. Conversation is one of the most intrusive sounds, since the brain automatically tries to listen and understand what’s being said. But everything from whirring printers to ringing phones and clicking keyboards can be problematic.

So, white noise may be used to help mask the hustle and bustle. Some of these sound tracks imitate noises found in nature, such as whispering breezes, waves, or rushing water. Others use specifically selected wavelengths of sound in spectrums known to be soothing. The idea is that the added layer of noise will help filter out or dampen the effect of less appealing sounds.

Not Everyone Likes White Noise

Unfortunately, white noise in the office doesn’t always work as intended. Kery Floyd, writing for forcexinc.com, clearly states his dislike for this artificial sound. He finds that it actually makes concentration more difficult. Floyd points to a couple of studies that have shown mixed results for white noise. In one, individuals who typically had difficulty concentrating were helped by the noise. Those who were usually attentive suffered a decline in performance. White noise was something of an equalizer, but certainly not an overall performance booster for all participants.

A summary of research published over at sonicstate.com offers a grim view of white noise in the office. It uses the research of Mark Andrews, (a physiology professor) to make the case that white noise causes stress and can lead to many harmful stress-related conditions. However, a closer reading reveals that Andrews is discussing low level background noise—which would include typical workplace sounds that we already know are distracting. It’s not specifically about white noise machines. At the same time, the comments on the article show a strong aversion to the use of “sound conditioning”. Complaints include headaches and distraction.

What’s the Takeaway?

Remember that perception is everything. If you do decide to use white noise, check to see if it is actually helping your employees. When you have workers complaining about white noise, it’s not the right solution. When it’s working right, no one should notice that it’s there.

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Should Every Employee Have an Office with a View?

office windowNot every workspace is a corner office with a view. But that doesn’t mean rank and file workers should be left without access to windows during their workday. There might be quite a few benefits for businesses that are willing to open up the workspace with exterior windows. Or so it would seem. Let’s take a look at some opinions from around the web.

Nature Is Good, Let’s Get More of It

According to an article published by the University of Washington, “The experience of nature helps to restore the mind from the mental fatigue of work or studies, contributing to improved work performance and satisfaction.”

Getting out and about in nature has the most profound effect, but even the visual stimulation of being able to see a natural scene out of a window could prove beneficial. As the article also points out, workers instinctively know they need this “green” stimulation. Those who don’t have a window view introduce twice as many natural elements (such as plants) into their work area compared to those who have a nature view at work.

Daylight at the Office Improves Nights at Home?

A good night’s sleep is certainly one key to a more productive day. According to a study conducted in Illinois comparing workers in windowed and windowless offices, there is a marked difference in sleep quality for those who get regular exposure to sunlight throughout the workday. “Their sleep logs showed that they slept an average of 46 minutes more per night and had better scores on measures for sleep quality, sleep disturbances and daytime sleepiness.”

More Studies Are Needed

The hard numbers to back up claims of improved work performance are still being gathered. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reviewed some of the available studies and found that, in one, “Workers with the best outdoor view at their workstation, compared to no outdoor view, performed 10% better in the cognitive acuity test and 16% better in the memory test.” Other studies showed little or no improvement on a variety of different metrics.

A set of case studies evaluated in a Haworth white paper found no link between exterior views, access to natural light, and a superior workplace. “Contrary to predictions, neither percent exterior view nor daylight-only luminance was related to organizational quality, workstation quality or job quality, but as expected, these objective measures did not predict job performance/productivity.” In other words, even though common sense might suggest that companies offering larger and better outdoor views would have more satisfied employees, the jury is still out on whether this is really true.

What’s your experience? Does having a beautiful outdoor view help your employees work harder, faster, and smarter?

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Having Plants in the Office Is Smart

plants in the officeShould you turn your office space into an arboretum? It might be a very good idea. According to an article by Dr. Leonard Perry at the University of Vermont, there’s plenty of evidence supporting the use of plants in the office. Benefits include stress relief, better air quality, and a more well-adjusted workforce. Here are a few highlights form the studies cited by Dr. Perry:

  • Visual exposure to plants reduces blood pressure in a matter of minutes
  • A shield of plants around a workspace can reduce noise by about 5 decibels
  • Absenteeism goes down when more plants are introduced
  • Plants release moisture into the air, creating the right humidity in the workplace for human comfort
  • Attractive plants cost a lot less than pricey artwork, and people enjoy them more
  • Contrary to what you might assume, introducing plants and soil is associated with lower mold and bacteria counts

Plants That Clean the Air

Apparently, many plants can remove airborne toxins such as VOCs, potentially relieving symptoms such as sore throat, headache, and fatigue. This reduction of toxins in the air is measurable, and NASA has created a list of plants that seem to be particularly effective. You can see a slideshow on that topic by Mother Nature Network here. A few you of the plants you might recognize include:

  • Golden Pothos (this one is incredibly hardy and does very well indoors even with little or no natural light)
  • Spider plant (excellent for hanging near exterior windows)
  • Elephant ear philodendron (this one’s pretty big and good for shared spaces)
  • Snake plant (thrives in humid areas like the restroom and can live with little light)
  • Cornstalk dracaena (a resilient shrub that can be used as a space divider)

How to Care for Office Plants

Keeping plants alive in the office can be a bit of a challenge at first. Make it part of the facility management or janitorial routine and ensure workers know how to handle the plants in their space.

  • Overwatering is worse than underwatering. If an employee is in charge of watering plants, ensure others know not to do additional watering. Coarse soil dries out faster than dense soil and requires more frequent watering.
  • Supply a watering can to avoid drips and spills on the way from the break room or bathroom to the plants.
  • Add fertilizer to plant pots on a regular basis to keep plants healthy.
  • Have a plan in place to transplant office plants to larger pots as they grow. Some plants can be cloned or divided to create new plants in smaller pots.

Going green in the office is pretty simple once you make it a habit. What steps can you take to create a more plant-friendly office?

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More Opinions about Open Offices

Last week, we reviewed a laundry list of opinions about open offices vs. closed offices. This time, let’s get more specific and list some issues that can crop up in the unfettered landscape of the entirely open office. Here are a number of valid complaints that office workers have about personality conflicts in open spaces:

  • The lack of privacy in an open office actually restricts honest communication because of all the eavesdropping.
  • Coworkers’ manners are a huge obstacle in open environments. They talk too loudly, don’t respect the privacy of others, and have conversations on speaker phone.
  • Introverts pay a “social penalty” for not engaging on the same level as their coworkers. It’s unfair to expect all personality types to work in the same way.
  • Theft is more likely to occur in an open office. It’s a hassle to have to lock your purse inside the desk if you get up to go to the copier.
  • HR ends up with way more work to do in smoothing ruffled feathers when everyone is in everyone else’s business in an open office.

Collaboration and Creativity

What about the perception that open offices are the best bet for keeping people connected and getting all the bright ideas flowing? Not everyone is on board with that viewpoint either. In fact, they point to a number of alternatives:

  • Small shared areas work better than completely open offices. People working on the same project can be clustered together in small teams to promote collaboration.
  • Closed floor plans make teamwork more productive because meetings have to be scheduled for a real purpose.
  • People who work inside their heads need private space. They don’t want to be pulled into conversations or make everything a “team project” in an open office.
  • Open spaces are OK for “creatives” working together on the same project, but people in operations roles need less distraction.
  • The workstation isn’t the place for socialization. It should be a place to concentrate get work done. Meetings are the right environment for communication and collaboration.

Can We All Just Get Along?

There is room for common ground in this ongoing debate. Most people do agree that the right solution is industry and job dependent. Confidentiality, privacy, and ethics are important considerations. There’s also widespread agreement that an ideal workspace makes room for both private areas and collaborative areas. OBEX panel extenders and desk panels offer a solution that’s easy to retrofit into any space to achieve just the right ratio.

Do you have opinions about open offices to share? Let loose in the comments!

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Open Office Opinions Online!

The open office debate will never be settled as long as there are dog people and cat people, coffee drinkers and tea sippers in the world. There are just too many variables that go into what makes some person feel alive in a bustling workspace while others feel overwhelmed. We’ve been collecting conversations on this topic for quite some time, so here’s an overview of some of the common opinions—both for and against.

In Favor of Walls:

  • Desk dividers or cubicles are the minimum requirement for privacy and personal space.
  • Open offices invite interruption. The sound from phone conversations is too distracting.
  • Open offices provide too much information about peers. You don’t really need to know how often someone visits the restroom or the break room.
  • Work takes longer in an open environment.
  • Phone work should never be done in an open setting. Cubicle walls or small offices work best.
  • Receiving a phone call from someone in an open office environment is unpleasant. There’s too much background noise.
  • An open environment is like an ad hoc meeting that has no point, is constantly interrupted, and never ends.

In Favor of Open Design:

  • An open office with lots of activity (but no rudeness) is creatively stimulating.
  • Open workspaces are nicest when they feature plenty of natural light to offset the downsides of lost privacy.
  • Coworkers use a lower voice when there are no cubicle walls (this was in an office that trained employees with etiquette videos when they switched to an open layout).
  • People are more likely to work hard when they are in an open office environment and can see others working.
  • High cubicle walls or offices create barriers to open communication and collaboration.
  • Teamwork is better and the flow of communication is improved when everyone is in close proximity.

As you probably noticed, these opinions can vary greatly based on perceptions, personal experience, and personality. Next week, we’ll look at opinions about how open spaces affect interpersonal relationships and whether open or closed is really the best option for communication and collaboration. Stay tuned!

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Helping Employees with ADHD Be Productive

desk-panel-4Last month, we took an in-depth look at how to assist introverts in the workplace. But these individuals aren’t the only ones who can have difficulty concentrating in a busy office. Employee with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) also struggle to be productive in today’s open office plans. Noises that some people block out can be very disruptive to workers who already have a tough time staying on task. Examples of intrusive noises include:

  • Coworkers talking
  • Foot traffic through the office
  • Elevator doors
  • Fax machines, photocopiers, and printers
  • Telephones ringing

Is ADHD Covered under the ADA?

Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. That really depends on the type and degree of limitation a person experiences in going about their daily lives. However, accommodating these workers makes sense regardless of the degree of disability. Like any employees, those with ADHD will simply do higher quality work and be more productive in the office if their needs are being met.

How Can Office Furniture and Design Help Workers with ADHD?

The Job Accommodation Network has a number of recommendations for reducing auditory and visual distractions. Locating the employee away from distractions is a good first step. Providing noise-canceling headsets or a white noise machine is also helpful. The space itself should be enclosed with cubicle walls, preferably with sound absorption panels. In an example provided by JAN, “A journalist with ADHD experienced sensitivity to visual and auditory distractions. The employer provided the individual with a private, high-wall cubicle workspace in a low-traffic area. The employer added an environmental sound machine to mask office noise.”

In an open office layout that has desks but not cubicles, installing a single cubicle might pose a real challenge. However, our desk mounted privacy panels can be installed on any standard office desk in less than 5 minutes using our universal brackets.

For workers with ADHD, choose privacy panels that feature:

  • Good acoustic properties (designed to prevent sound from traveling into the employee’s workspace from surrounding areas)
  • A textile covering in a soothing, neutral color
  • A tall height, so that the worker cannot see visual distractions while in a seated position and so that others cannot easily look over the top to interrupt the employee’s work

The solution is simple and inexpensive—a win-win for you and your employees.

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Fun Office Furniture Content from Around the Web

It’s the end of the month, and that’s a good excuse to enjoy some fun office furniture blogs. Here are a few favorites that should be on your list to read or watch before we say goodbye to August.

Sit or Stand, You’re Still Doomed to Work!

Nikil Saval at n+1 magazine offers no mercy in this satirical review of the current sit-to-stand trend. He touts the well-known statistics about the harm of prolonged sitting and comes to a grim conclusion. “Over months or years spent in a chair, robust human substance dissipates into muck, and the longer you sit, the sooner you die.” At the same time, he ridicules the cult of the standing desk, poking fun at the tendency to glamorize it. “…people regularly invoke the examples of Hemingway, Churchill, Nabokov: figures who famously tended to stand while they wrote or read. None of them was an especially healthy individual; more to the point, none was an office worker.”

Don’t Put in a Work Order to Fix That Chair…

Enjoy the Darwin Awards of office furniture repair at “thereifixedit”. These DIY jobs are proof that anything can be put back together with duct tape and a little wishful thinking. Castors seem to be a favorite fixer upper, but one inventive worker actually repurposed the bucket seat from a car as a task chair. Sadly, the cup holder wasn’t left intact.

The Virtual Conference Room

This popular YouTube video reposted at neousa.com is a reenactment of what a tele-conference call would be like if it took place in an actual conference room with everyone present. Perhaps you’ve learned to tune out all these annoyances in the past. Be warned, now you will start noticing all the things you hate about conference calls again. On the plus side, you may get some ideas for how to get out of the next call without anyone being the wiser.

Office Furniture Motivational Speaker

Jack McCracken gives a crackerjack presentation about how office furniture can change your life. Watch him mesmerize a room full of first graders with his flow charts and graphs. He inspires with words of wisdom about how “office chairs raise you up to a higher plane.” If you don’t think this is the kind of motivational speech that kids need to hear, think again. In the immortal words of Jack, “If a kid doesn’t care about a credenza now, what happens when she’s 35 and stuck in a soul-sucking middle management job?” What indeed.

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More about Government Workspace Design Trends

Last week, we explored the topic of hoteling or desk sharing in government workspace design. This week, let’s take a look at how mobility is changing the work environment for federal agencies. According to the GSA paper on workspace utilization, the public sector is tracking the private sector pretty closely in terms of lower usage of physical office workspace. They credit changes in technology, workforce demographics, and sustainability initiatives as the guiding forces behind this shift.

Avoiding the Office Is the New Rule

Government mandates to increase telework and reduce office real estate costs are driving a significant change in the footprint of many agencies. In fact, government organizations outstrip the private sector in telework according to the GSA survey. A full 77% of government organizations reported using telework, while that was true for only 68% of private industry organizations surveyed.

While security concerns still hamper efforts to go wireless and paperless, these hurdles are being overcome one by one. In particular, the advent of programs like FedRamp that help agencies securely transition to cloud storage and computing are creating the necessary environment to untether workers from their desks.

Where Are Employees Going to Work?

Heads down work is still occurring, but it isn’t necessarily taking place at a regularly assigned desk. Instead, employees are completing their duties wherever they find themselves. While private industry workers might have to make do with home offices and coffee shops while away from the office, government employees are often deployed to field offices or partner agencies. It might be considered a form of desk sharing that spans multiple facilities. Either way, this leaves a huge volume of workstations empty on a regular basis. In fact, between 8 AM and 5 PM on weekdays, only 35 to 50% of desks are occupied. That’s a level of waste that is difficult to ignore.

The GSA Leads the Way

The GSA took its own advice during a recent remodel of its headquarters. The agency now affords employees only half the amount of space they enjoyed before—but they have more freedom to work elsewhere if they wish.

The savings of $24 million dollars on the six leases that were eliminated in the consolidation effort is certainly a testament to thrift. Even the head of the GSA gave up his 1600 square foot office to sit at an open desk amidst his employees. Of course, his home office is probably a lot nicer. One more reason to telecommute!

If you are a government agency looking for ways to improve space utilization, The Office Planning Group can help. We can even procure GSA approved office furniture for your remodeled space. Contact us today for a consultation.

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Office Space Planning in Government Part 1

government office space planningGovernments are well known for being late adopters of popular trends. As entrenched bureaucracies with thick layers of rules, they must proceed with caution in making changes. This is no different in the office space planning arena than it is elsewhere. The upside is that, once a government agency finds an approach that works, they can proliferate it throughout many organizations to achieve efficiency on a massive scale. This is likely to happen in the space planning sphere soon.

Right now, federal and state governments seem to be in the midst of an ongoing experimental phase. They are juggling factors such as space availability, energy and maintenance costs, and security concerns while evaluating new choices such as mobile and alternative work environments. Federal agencies, in particular have a strict set of mandates to follow in determining how to design and utilize workspaces:

  • Preserving the value of the real estate
  • Meeting the needs of employees
  • Promoting maximum utilization of the space
  • Improving the productivity of workers to meet mission requirements

Hoteling and desk sharing are some of the techniques on the table as they seek to modernize the office while achieving all the objectives above.

Using Fewer Workstations in Government Spaces

The practice of reducing the number of available workstations below the number of employees is one way to capture real estate savings. Since not all workers are at their desks 100% of the time, it makes sense to provision only as many workstations as are really needed. Workers can reserve the type of workstation they need in advance or simply choose an available space when they arrive at the office. These practices and similar variations are called hoteling and desk sharing.

According to the Workspace Utilization Benchmark publication from 2012, “Alternative work environments including telework, hoteling stations, and desk sharing, are a major trend in today’s real estate marketplace, and offer organizations flexibility and optimal workspace usage. Additionally, organizations have noted an increase of quantitative benefits with the use of alternative work environments such as increased productivity and enhanced associate morale.”

Giving Hot Desking a Second Chance

The paper goes on to note that, while hoteling and desk sharing were tried in the 1990’s, the result was abject failure. The technology available at the time simply made it too difficult to stay productive in a constantly shifting office environment. Trying to force hoteling didn’t work. However, this way of working has begun to arise spontaneously today in response to mobile technology and a more collaborative work style. Still, hoteling and desk sharing are much less common in public sector workspaces compared to the private sector (16% vs. 48%).

According to an article by Lisa Rein in the Washington Post, it simply takes time to make the switch. The GSA itself is a good example: “With 3,300 headquarters employees, the GSA represents just a small fraction of the federal workforce. Even so, it took a full year to train everyone to electronically reserve desks and meeting rooms and give up the paper that still dominates most government work.” With the GSA leading the way, other agencies are sure to follow. Getting employees on board with a more flexible federal workspace is just a matter of time.

Stay tuned next week for more about mobile work in the Government workspace.

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