Saturday, March 14, 2009

the office as a tool 1.7 - some surprises no surprise at all

In our last installment summarizing Michael Brill's short booklet The Office as a Tool he was reviewing surprising results of their research into the workplace. In the last time they found surprisingly that windows don't matter that much, and that everybody can benefit from good ergonomics, not just the intensive computer users.

The next surprise, which I more and more find is no surprise at all, is that designer's ideas of what makes good space differs from worker's ideas of what makes good space. Now the most obvious example of that is the Open Office. We saw in an earlier installment that workers were more productive when they had a sense of enclosure. We saw that some degree of privacy could actually increase office communication - completely counterintuitive to what you would expect from an open office.

So why is this? I have to plead guilty to this one. I've always thought that open space and direct connections between people would promote communication, teamwork, and productivity. But its clear that while that may happen for some people, in most cases it makes people feel exposed, reserved, and self conscious. Enclosure and control over your privacy is more likely to promote behaviors that foster communication, teamwork, and productivity. Behaviors don't work on a line of sight basis.

Then why is it that most of the photos we see of creative workplaces are open? Big table desking, putting everybody at the same big desk cafeteria style seems to be the pervasive arrangement in many of these workplaces. Just scan the agency offices at This Aint No Disco. Is this the misunderstanding of designers at work? Or the surveillance imperative by management? Is it just the least expensive way to fit out the office? Is simply that the open office photographs better? Is openness simply easier to tolerate in a small office? Is there some line you can cross where the open office is so big you gain anonymity back?

One thing that is clear - if you work with a designer to layout your space, talk this issue through with them. Let them know you are focused on behavior and the experience of the workplace over award winning photos. Give your people the control over their privacy that empowers them to do the best work for you.

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