Friday, November 29, 2013

How your office layout affects your employees and their productivity

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 specific computers.

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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Rise of Working from Home

It's clear that the "American work environment" is rapidly changing due to a number of factors - demographic, regulatory, economic - but one of the more invisible changes is the transition from office to home work.  Earlier this year Marissa Mayer, citing a need for collaboration, ordered Yahoo's telecommuting workers back to work at corporate headquarters, provoking a debate about the productivity of at-home workers.  Since telecommuting is a new phenomenon, the research on productivity isn't fully conclusive, but several studies indicate that working at home may increase productivity, rather than decrease it, no matter what bosses fear about what the mice will do when the cat's away.  This assumes, of course, that a given company hires responsible, hardworking people.

The trade off is often innovation, however, as people increase their creativity as they socialize and bounce ideas off one another.  But many jobs done in offices aren't particularly creative, and employers are capable of judging the best setting for the work.  Aetna, for instance, has moved more than a third of its workers to at home employment and eliminated the need to house, heat, and cool them for a significant percent of each day.  Processing medical claims does not take a great deal of collaboration, and many people jump at the chance to skip the dress up and commute and complete their work next to their favorite pet instead of across the cubicle from some passive aggressive nightmare or a chatty Cathy.
"Through telecommuting, the company has cut 2.7 million square feet of office space at $29 a square foot, for about $78 million in cost savings a year including utilities, housekeeping, mail service and document shredding.
Teleworkers, who in addition to nurses and physicians include customer service representatives, claims processors, network managers, communications and human resources professionals, lawyers, underwriters, actuaries and others, have high productivity, Aetna says. Many are likely to be women as about three-quarters of the company's workforce is female."
From the standpoint of the worker, other benefits of telecommuting include lowered expenses for travel, work clothing, and meals out, greater flexibility in terms of family life planning, whether caring for children or older adults, and less exposure to time-consuming, mind-numbing corporate culture.  You don't have to suffer through the Sexual Harassment seminar every year.  That's a big perk.

Millenials as a whole tend to be more comfortable with the technology necessary for telecommuting and less tolerant of the time wasters of bureaucracy, so they fit right into this niche.  Many of them haven't had the opportunity to settle into a career - and its accompanying income bump either - so working at home makes more sense financially.  Keeping an old car running can be a very expensive proposition which may explain why driving is down among Millenials.  If you work at home, the commute is pretty short.  You don't even have to get a bicycle or a scooter, although you may want to, for fun and exercise.

What is your experience with working at home?  Do you know many people who do or who run their small businesses from home instead of a storefront?