Reflecting on learning and seeing the world in exciting new ways.

Archive for January, 2011

Physical workplace environments

What effect does a physical work environment have on productivity? To what extent do the things around us affect our general disposition and output? Is there any direct link at all?

There is always plenty of advice available in the new year about decluttering office spaces, organising your office and creating a state of office zen. A few months ago, our office morphed into an open plan workspace. Builders ripped down office walls and glass fishbowl meeting rooms were removed to allow us to sit in pods of four according to our job titles. The intention was that by being physically closer to people working in similar roles, there will be more collaboration and ‘just in time’ collegial support. Although a vast improvement on the rabbit warren it replaced, the open plan environment has also created issues of its own in terms of noise (both audio and visual), storage, personal space, working preferences and personality. Luckily there are plenty of websites offering great advice and solutions.

I recently finished reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell discusses the power of context in terms of exploring whether our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances. He describes an experiment carried out by a group of social scientists in the 1970s involving creating a mock prison in the basement of a university building. Volunteers were asked to apply to be ‘prisoners’ for a week while other volunteers would be ‘prison guards’. The purpose of the experiment was to try to find out why prisons are such nasty places. Was it because they are full of nasty people, or because they are such nasty environments that they make people nasty? The experiment was originally intended to last for two weeks; it had to be called off after just six days, as the volunteers became assimilated into their roles and surroundings at an alarming rate.

I am not for one minute pretending to compare a workplace office environment to a prison cell but I couldn’t help but be intrigued with this finding. Do we become what we are surrounded by? If so, can we take active steps to create our surroundings and incorporate them into our psyche? How important is autonomy and personal choice in determining aspects of our physical environment in relation to how we feel about work and, ultimately, our overall productivity?

Having worked in open plan spaces, closed cubicle offices, primary school classrooms and at home over the years, I see benefits and drawbacks from each. However, the ability to personalise my working space has always had a drastic effect on my psychological well being and my overall ability to function well at work. Maybe only some people feel the need to put their creative or personalised stamp on their workplace surroundings? Perhaps there are those whose physical environment is inconsequential to their work? I wonder about finding the right balance between the so-called collegiality afforded by open plan offices and enough autonomy and independence which respects each of the individuals working within it.

Image source:
Used without permission