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The post-cubicle office: does it make employees any happier or more productive?


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In the NY Times Magazine, Nikil Saval, author of the book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, writes about the “post-cubicle” trend in office design. Do blond wood and open floor plans really make workers happier and more productive? Not so much. Here’s an excerpt:

Office design concerned with employees’ happiness, well-being, instincts for play — this ought to be the best of all possible worlds. There is no question that such offices look vastly more inviting than your average cubicle farm; it’s not surprising that so many companies seek to emulate them. Yet the ‘‘disruptive’’ thinking that insists a workplace ought to care not just for your average needs (supplies, potable coffee, a microwave) but for your deepest psychological ones as well has its insidious side. If the new workplace technology makes it impossible to leave work at work, the ‘‘ethonomic’’ thinking behind new workplace design is intended to make it increasingly difficult to separate our work lives from everything else. The sociologist William Davies has dubbed this complex of ideas ‘‘the happiness industry,’’ wherein your most private emotions and — through the introduction of ‘‘wellness’’ programs at work — even your health are now intimate concerns of your boss. One of the most popular and cited gurus of the new workplace, Tony Hsieh, the C.E.O. of Zappos, has argued that companies ought to employ ‘‘chief happiness officers’’ to ensure enthusiasm at the office. He has also suggested that they regularly identify the 10 percent of workers who share the least enthusiasm for the ‘‘happiness agenda’’ — and fire them.

Ultimately it’s not clear whether the new offices work in the way they’re advertised. Even when common spaces are covered over in beautiful, bright plywood paneling, as with Lenne in Tallinn, Estonia, the actual desks are often in open-plan setups. The move to take people out of private offices, the better to improve collaboration and productivity, has little empirical justification. Most widely cited studies of employee satisfaction tend to run against such trends in office design. A study from The Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013 indicated that 50 percent of workers in open-plan spaces suffer from a lack of sound privacy, and 30 percent complain about a lack of visual privacy.

Image: The King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. Via NY Times.