By Rachel Potter

Previously we discussed how the changing economy and technology have contributed to the rise of working from home.  But many of those same changes have contributed to a shift in the use of office space.  In an insecure economy with rising rental, heating, and benefit costs, businesses look to where they can save money, and one of those areas is space.  This, more than the touted differences in Millenials’ work and interaction preferences, may be driving the workplace trends in design.

For some time now the trend has been to get rid of cubicles and increase shared or open spaces, supposed to facilitate conversation and cooperation.  So we now see benching appearing (see left), either assigned or unassigned, and other “free” spaces that can be used on a first-come-first-served basis. Anything requiring privacy in these types of spaces must be done in a conference room which may be reserved in advance or used if no one else has made a claim.

Ever-expanding technology has had a huge hand in these office alterations as more portable computing and storage has eliminated the need for workers to use specificcomputers.

Unfortunately, recent research from the University of Sydney has shed light on the fact that these open space environments are less likely to create satisfying or productive work environments.  This study polled workers who were in the following environments:

  • Enclosed private
  • Enclosed shared
  • Cubicles with high partitions
  • Cubicles with low partitions
  • Open office

and found that employees in open office environments were significantly more dissatisfied than those in enclosed ones, particularly regarding office temperature and sound and visual privacy.  Many workers simply do not like the fishbowl feeling of being constantly exposed in an open office.  And they dislike hearing their coworkers’ conversations and having to moderate their own.  The distractions involved and the general discomfort produced has to impact on efficiency and general productivity, which may explain why workers who work at home – the ultimate enclosed, private space – were happier and more productive, according to a London School of Economic and Political Science study.

If you have a small business, the above is something to keep in mind when you plan your space and determine how much privacy to allow your employees.  If you have a very open space, it may be worthwhile to take a section of it and partition it off for those who find it most difficult to work within a crowd.  Be generous, though, or you might have a fight on your hands about who gets the last cubicle.