A few years ago, I visited an amusement park in Utah, and was horrified when I rode through their animal park and saw large animals in cages with no shade and cement floors. There was little to no "play" equipment for the animals and certainly nothing was like their natural habitat. Had these animals had a choice of where to live, surely they would have chosen just about anything else other than this set up.
Then, this morning I read this article, Are Open Plan Offices Inhumane? and I thought about those poor animals in their little cubicles-uh, cages. Kate O'Hara talks about the lofty goals of these open office floor plans as follows:
As with any "progressive" notion, the idea of the "open plan" office had lofty goals. Lowering cubicle walls or eliminating personal workspaces entirely, it was meant to foster communication, collaboration and teamwork. As a bonus, it saved floor space, money and allowed bosses -- often sequestered in glass-walled offices around the perimeter -- to keep a constant eye on employees.
Except it didn't work like that. People beg and plead for private offices and feel like they've won the lottery when the get one. Most zoos have made a huge effort to make the animals homes more like their natural habitats, but offices often go the opposite way. We don't seem to do this in our work environments. What if we had our work spaces look like our natural habitats? How would that work?
I'm not talking about going all Paleo and putting everyone in caves or something. But, taking a look at how people choose to live. We don't choose to live in settings without privacy. Even within our own homes, we tend to have bedrooms with doors we can close to keep other family members out.
Of course, this has not been the case in every culture in every time period, but it's how most Americans choose to live. We don't say, "Hey, it would be totally awesome to live with 14 other roommates!" No, we build individual houses (80 percent of Americans prefer single family home living), and some of us even put fences around our yards to futher designate this areas as ours. It's classier than the cat version of marking our territory.
Would we work better if our offices reflected our chosen lifestyle? That is, do we do better with privacy instead of open work spaces? It looks like that might be the case. For one thing, if you have just cubicle material or worse, nothing but air, between you and your coworkers, you hear everything. You hear their conversations. You hear their gum chewing. Even when they listen to their music with headphones, you can hear that too. Blech. The Boston Globe reports that one firm that specializes in sound proofing has seen business triple since 2011, with most of their work focused on making cubicles quieter.
Even when you have great teams that require a lot of working together, having some space available for retreat and individual work can be a blessing in productivity. You can work together and collaborate, but someone has to write up the report, or produce the spreadsheet, and none of us need someone sanding over our shoulders saying, "Move that there. That should be a semi colon. Hey, what about changing fonts?"
Me? One of the reasons I like working from home is that I get to do so in my chosen environment. Right now, that's sitting in front of the Christmas tree. Far better than listening to my coworkers snort and snuffle her way through a cold.
Take a lesson from the world's zoos and think about how people would choose to design their work spaces if you let them. Maybe a litle privacy is in order.