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  • Ayat Ismail, Ph.D.,

The Science Behind Workplaces that Work

In movies and popular culture depicting the corporate world, it is very common to find that one good employee who works so hard to get promoted and win the big prize. You might think the big prize here is the title or the paycheck, but it is actually the ‘corner office’.

So, what is so special about the ‘Corner Office’? As expected, the ‘Corner office’ got its name from its location in the building. It is usually located on an external façade – preferably at the corner of the building – with direct access to natural daylighting and a possible nice view of the cityscape or natural landscape. Due to their location in a building, these offices are limited and special. They have been chiefly reserved for executives and managers. Whereas at the center of the building, tens of junior employees get crammed in lifeless partitioned desks called ‘Cubicles’ – as further away from the outside world as possible.

That image delivered to us by the 80s and 90s movies was actually very close toreality. But how did we get there? Why has cubicles dominated the workplace scene so long? Why do employees just hate cubicles – and still strive to get corner offices? And as business owners or designers; how can we make the employees more satisfied with their workplace?

Cubicles – From the Promise to the Prison of the CorporateWorld

Photo by Kate Sade

Since their invention in the 1960s, cubicles have prevailed the workplace scene. Their widespread was no surprise because cubicle seemed as a promise for a great new corporate world. They offer order, control and efficiency around the workplace. On the one hand, employers were able to fit more employees in the same available space through arranging cubicles tightly together and reduce unused spaces. Cubicles gave managers sense of control over their employees. This was expected to reduce unproductive work-time by eliminating the distractions of open floor design. On the other hand, employees had everything they needed to be productive in that neatly wrapped desk, with their computers, phones, or fax machine at hand. They were not distracted by social interactions with their colleagues, or the sight of the messy desks and computer screens of other colleges. All in all, a cubicle seemed perfect for work environments, turning office spaces into cogs in a good-oiled machine.

The only problem was that human beings do not function as machines. Working long hours inside a cubicle meant being intensely subjected to artificial lighting, mechanical ventilation, staring for hours in a screen and raising your eyes to only see the gray partition separating you from other colleagues and the world. It is no surprise then that people who spent years in the cubicles described them as a prison cell, hell with fluorescent light, a cemetery for wasted potential. These are not just overdramatic statements of grouchy employees. With the increasing rates of cognitive and behavioral impairments of employees, psychologists and researchers began to investigate the impacts of the work environment on the mental state of employees. At the turn of the new millennium, there was no doubt that cubicles had harmful impacts on both people and the economy. A key study by Woo and Postolache in 2008 linked the work environment to a wide range of mood disorders – such as depression, work stress and insomnia – which could lead unfortunately to suicide. Their findings match the numbers published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census confirming that workplace suicide rate is continuing to rise. This is further associated with an increase on demand for health care as Groh et al. figured out in 2015. Therefore, it becomes obvious that workplace design could pose tremendous burdens on both individuals and organization

The fall of ‘Cubicles’ and the rise of ‘Congruent Environments’

Talking science, ‘The Man’ vs ‘The Cubicle’ conflict could be understood in light of a very interesting idea introduced by Osmond and Sommer in the 1960s. They postulated that people’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral states are subjected to the influence of their surrounding environment. To explore this influence, they conducted several experiments on the mental state of patients in health care facilities. They found out that certain colors, shapes, textures and material, levels of light and noise, organization of spaces and activities are key factors that could have either adverse or favorable influence on people inhabiting certain space.

This idea of Humphry and Sommer captured the interest of scientists in many fields. Researchers in the field of environmental psychology began to run experiments on how people are affected by certain stimuli. They were asking questions such as: What is the effect of natural lighting on productivity? What is the effect of ceiling heights on problem solving abilities? What is the effect of ambient noise on psychological stress level? Over time, the results of these experiments found their way into the designs of some architects and interior designers in attempts to design ‘Congruent Environments’. These are environments that put the user in the right cognitive, emotional, and behavioral states for them to perform therequired function, while minimizing the adverse impacts of stress and other mental health issues. This opened the field for the emergence of a new science called ‘Place Science’.

’Place Science’ is an Investment in Business Growth

Photo by Austin Distel

As a business owner, you may wonder: “What’s in it for me?”; “Why should my workplace embrace the guidelines of Place Science?; “Is it really worth to shift from the standard cubicles?” and; “Is this another market fad?”

As a starter, Place science is not Feng Shui. It is not about using energy to harmonize individuals with the surrounding environment. It is also not a marketing stunt. It is not about randomly adding some cool furniture and installing some cutting-edge gadgets. It is science, like physics or biology. It uses scientific methods to examine how the place – the physical environment – influences the mental state of the users. It, accordingly, determines any required changes to be made in order to help achieve the personal and professional objectives of the users.

This makes Place science a structured approach to boost the productivity of employees, and reduce their physical and psychological stress. It helps increasing the satisfaction of employees with their workplace, enhancing their performance and reinforcing their collective identity as part of a team.

If this sounds too good to be true, global workplace surveys show that organizations investing in the wellbeing of their most valuables assets ‘the workforce’ have less sick leaves and higher employee morale. Thus, embracing principles of workplace design is in fact investment in business. The ‘SelgasCano office’ in Madrid is a case in point. The design aims at incorporating natural lighting and surrounding nature into the workspace to reduce the physical and psychological stress of the staff. Another acclaimed example that reflects congruent environment design is Samsung R&D headquarters at San Jose. This building focuses on enriching the spatial experience of its users and offering them a sense of control in their workspaces.

‘Place science’ is a Game-Changer in Workplace Design

As a designer, you may wonder: “What’s in it for me?”; “How is Place Science different from the mainstream design approach?” and; “What is my role in this new game?”

To begin with, it is important to note that Place Science is an interdisciplinary field. It requires the cooperation among place scientists from different disciplines including psychologists, biologists, sociologists, architects, and interior designers. These scientists work together to understand the influence of design elements on mood, motivation, stress level, performance, satisfaction. They deal with issues of crowding, personal space, access to natural environment, reinforcing team identity and office culture, along with many other issues. The findings of research are directly interpreted into design guidelines for congruent environments that optimize performance in all building types, including workplace, hospitals, airports, and restaurants. In the current design scene, the recommendations made by place scientists are not yet fully incorporated into the mainstream approach for designing congruent environments. So far, the quality of the design depends entirely on the ability of the in-house designer to anticipate the impacts of his design on the users’ performance and satisfaction. Learning about Place Science helps us – designers - create new kind of environments that are not only sensitive to the needs and mental health of the user, but also maximize their performance in the best way possible.

Back to the Cubicle/ Corner Office tension; one can now see the ‘Corner office’ as a big prize is in fact a human desire to have an environment that meets all their needs – a wish we all strive for!

Following on from here, the coming posts will dig a bit deeper in into place science and how to design congruent work environments that benefits people and organizations. Stay tuned!

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