My work station is an invading overlord. Belongings march across the long desk I share with several other editors, spilling out of my space and encroaching on the neutral zones abutting my colleagues’ work areas. To the east, legions of books, papers, and sticky notes advance, led by a squadron of glass paperweights. To the west, my phalanx of tote bags, receipts, and forgotten coffee mugs blocks any retreat.
But fortunately, thanks to recent research by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear at the University of Sydney, I know that my mess probably doesn’t bother my coworkers all that much. In fact, of all the myriad annoyances of office life, workspace cleanliness bothered scarcely 10% of workers — although workers in offices like mine, where there are no partitions, were bothered slightly more. (Perhaps because there is no Great Wall to contain the advancing hordes of a colleague’s stuff.)
What probably gets under my colleagues’ skin much more is how noisy I am: the muttered curses when my computer gives me the blue screen of death or the impromptu phone calls with authors that end up lasting an hour (sorry guys!). A full 30% of workers in cubicles, and roughly 25% in partitionless offices, were dissatisfied with the noise level of their workspaces.
The worst part, according to the data, is that these office workers can’t control what they hear — or who hears them. Lack of sound privacy was far and away the most despised issue in the survey, with 60% of cubicle workers and half of all partitionless people indicating it as a frustration. (Researchers guess that the partitionless people are slightly less bothered by it because at least they can see where the noise is coming from, which gives them a sense of control — no matter how illusory. Based on my own partitionless office, I’d also guess a lot of those workers are listening to music on headphones to block out distractions.) Other frustrations included lack of visual privacy and temperature. There was no data collected for intrusive smells.
Given that other studies have shown we only spend 35% of our time at our work stations, though, I it seems reasonable for a cost-minded manager to assume that we should just abolish the office, despite its popularity with workers. Make everything modular. Let the collaboration flow.
Not so fast. Previous research, cited by Kim and de Dear, has already shown that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction… was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices, and the tasks requiring complex verbal process” — the most important tasks, you might argue — “were more likely to be disturbed than relatively simple or routine tasks.” In this paper, Kim and de Dear show that this loss of productivity is not offset by increased collaboration.
“Ease of interaction” was barely an issue — less than 10% of all office workers cited it as a problem, no matter what kind of workspace they had. In fact, people in enclosed offices found it even less of an issue than workers in cubicles and workers in open layouts. (Perhaps because enclosed offices obviate the all-too-common challenge of finding a private place to talk.)
And when the researchers looked at the data a different way — using a regression to calculate what was not only most frustrating, but how important each frustration was to a worker’s overall satisfaction — the single most important issue was a lack of space. That held true no matter what kind of office you had — an enclosed office, a cubicle, or an open layout.
The bottom line: workers in enclosed offices were by far the happiest, reporting the least amount of frustration on all 15 of the factors surveyed. Workers in cubicles with high partitions were the most miserable, reporting the lowest rates of satisfaction in 13 out of those 15 factors.
I’m left with the conclusion that Virginia Woolf was right: what one really needs is simply a room of one’s own. Stained coffee mugs, teetering stacks of books, and all.