The office layout
The idea of being stuck in a cubicle for 8 hours every weekday makes almost everyone depressed. However, some studies have shown that the very opposite of cubicles—open-spaced offices—are the workplaces that lead to a drop in employee morale. Matthew Davis, the organizational psychologist who conducted this research, found that workers in these types of offices experienced more uncontrolled interactions, lower levels of focus and motivation, and a greater amount of stress. What about this type of office design is causing a decrease in employee spirit?
Maria Konnikova, who covered these open-office studies in a piece for The New Yorker, says, “physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness.” The only issue with the study she mentions is that it was published in 1980, before the rise of Millennials.
This Gen-Y demographic is known to be expert multi-taskers and socializers—usually combining both traits at the same time. Konnikova says that open offices “may seem better suited to younger workers.” These young employees believe a lack of privacy and an inability to control their environment are worthy trade-offs for being able to socialize with coworkers, who they were often friends with.
Because Millennials are willing to give up privacy, personal environment, and other closed-office perks in exchange for being with their friends, many new and hip companies have adopted open-spaced offices. But, it doesn’t stop with open spaces—you need to be trendier than that to build your company’s youthful vibe. As venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz puts it, “desktop computers of yore have been replaced by standing desks adorned with Apple Cinema Displays, bike racks hang from the joists in hallways, exposed brick and beam has replaced sheetrock and plaster, and conference rooms have become smaller, often connected to the world by video conferencing.”
Why do companies go to such lengths to improve their workplace design? What are they trying to accomplish when they install a beer tap in the kitchen?
Vibe is important
Businesses are spending money on hip office accouterments to keep their employees happy and to build their company’s vibe. According to Tunguz, “vibe is the embodiment of a company’s culture in furniture, food and décor.” This cultural embodiment of the workplace is so important that some companies like Heroku, a cloud platform service, have even hired a Chief Vibe Officer. Now, you may ask yourself, is this taking it a little too far?
The answer is no, because negative workplace vibe causes more issues than one may suspect. A recent survey, released by the Institute of Health Economics (IHE), shows there may be a connection between stressful working conditions and the mental health of employees. The study shows that it’s not necessarily work factors causing the mental issues, but rather aggravating them. This increased stress at work can cause employees to become depressed, leading them to show lack of initiative, complete tasks poorly, and bring other workers down as well.
Linda Johnson, reporting for Canada’s Occupational Safety website, says the researchers concluded that “the most effective way to promote mental well-being in the workplace is to change the work culture.” That Chief Vibe Officer is starting to sound a lot more important right now.
What improves vibe, reduces stress, and is alive?
Greenery, plants, gardens, and even a simple window-view of trees outside have all been found to mentally benefit humans. Dr. Susan Barton, a professor at the University of Delaware, discusses the benefits of being near greenery in her “Human Benefits of Green Spaces.”
Dr. Barton’s report mentions a study that proves stressed individuals feel better after exposure to natural landscapes. On top of this, and most beneficial to the workplace, “Scientists assert that green spaces increase our ability to concentrate.” Apparently, voluntary attention—the focus required to ignore distractions and remain devoted to your job throughout the day—is relieved and allowed to recharge when we see nature around us.”
Remember when we talked about the daily struggle of remaining focused in an open-office space? Could green spaces actually improve our ability to retain a freshly focused mind throughout the day?
If incorporating plants and indoor gardens throughout the workplace is appropriate, why is it so rarely seen? The problem, according to Dr. Barton, is that people have “plant blindness.” For most of us, greenery is simply playing the “backdrop role” in our day-to-day lives, making it easy to forget.
In 2006, the Project EverGreen Survey carried out interviews to see how the public felt about the following true statement: “Psychologists have found that access to plants and green spaces provides a sense of rest and allows workers to be more productive.” Of the people surveyed, 55% disagreed with that statement and 35% agreed.
Could it be humans have become so disconnected with nature that we’ve completely forgotten its importance? What will it take for business leaders, corporate offices, and the leading Chief Vibe Officers to realize the forgotten power of green space?
If corporations want to progress they are going to have to pay close attention to their office vibe. When the culture is conducive, employees are happy. When employees are happy, they are focused and more productive. Tunguz insightfully states in his future workplace article: “Increasingly, the four walls that surround us are embodiments of our values.” Why not surround those walls with greenery and embody a sustainable business?