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"From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz"

So reads a recent front page story by John Tierney in the Sunday New York Times ( see article here ). The main theme of the article is the potentially negative impact that cubicles and shared workspaces are having on employee satisfaction and productivity. For example, the study cites a finding by Berkeley's Center for the Built Environment that more than half of employees are dissatisfied with the level of "speech privacy" that they have.

Although cubicles and shared work spaces were intended to foster greater collaboration and communication, the article cites evidence that employees have more superficial conversations in open environments because they are self-conscious about being overheard, which leads to the use of email or instant messaging for more private conversations or needing to find private spaces to have more private discussions.

Here at Insightlink, this article got us thinking about the impact of the workplace environment on such key measures as employee satisfaction and perceptions of organizational communications. Our annual norms questionnaire includes a question on work environment, which we used to dig a little deeper to answer these questions. Looking at all U.S. employees in organizations of at least 50 people, there is an even split between those who work in offices and those who work in shared work spaces:

  • 29% work in offices, while
  • 19% work in cubicles and 5% work in each of collaborative work spaces or open environments, which also adds up to a total of 29%.
The remaining employees work in a number of different environments, including in retail stores (7%), in classrooms (6%), in warehouses/manufacturing settings (6%), in medical facilities/hospitals/labs (5%), outdoors (3%) and even in their cars (1%)! Also, 3% of U.S. employees either work from home or telecommute. One really notable distinction is that the use of cubicles increases dramatically as the size of the organization increases (especially organizations of 5,000 or more employees), whereas offices are more prevalent in companies of between 100 and 500 employees.

So, how does the work environment influence employee satisfaction? First of all, there is a large difference in job satisfaction by work environment, especially between office workers (64%) and cubicle workers (46%):

Robert Gray
Overall Job Satisfaction Total Offices Cubicles Collaborative Workspaces Open Environments
Extremely/very satisfied 56% 64% 46% 53% 53%


Of course, the actual work environment is not the only reason for this difference but it probably is a contributing factor. Among the other factors, senior management and middle management personnel are more likely to work in offices and they tend to be more satisfied with their jobs but they account for just 15% of all employees. Technical staff are more likely to work in cubicles or shared work spaces but their job satisfaction matches that of all U.S. employees, which suggests that the type of work done does not adequately explain the reason behind the big difference in job satisfaction between those working in offices and employees working in a collaborative environment. Similarly, differences in organizational size are not the reason, since individual job satisfaction does not vary much by size.

If this difference cannot be explained entirely by differences in the role or size, then where are some of the other areas where work environment seems to impact attitudes toward work?

The New York Times article strongly emphasizes the detrimental impact that shared work environments may be having on both productivity and communications, mainly because of the distraction of hearing other people's conversations. Our analysis confirms the concern about communications but also points to some other contributing factors.

Specifically, employees who work in shared work environments are consistently less satisfied with:
  • Their physical working conditions - employees in cubicles and shared workspaces simply like them less!
  • Their overall work environment - it seems that employees are not benefiting from organizations' attempts to build feelings of camaraderie.
  • Their sense of autonomy - this may be linked to the perceived loss of privacy in shared environments.
  • Both their ability to cut through the bureaucracy to get things done and their opportunity to talk and share ideas with employees all over the organization - these findings run counter to the intended rationale for open-plan offices to, as John Tierney puts it, " foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate."
  • Their opportunities for acknowledgement, recognition and advancement - although these gaps are probably not directly related to the work setting, is there something in shared work spaces that stifles organizations from recognizing individual achievement?
John Tierney's article concludes with a summary of the actions that some employers are taking to mitigate some of the problems with open-office environments, including noise reduction and creating comfortable spaces where employees can retreat for more private conversations. Our results, though, suggest that organizations also need to take action to ensure that, wherever they work, employees need to be recognized for their contributions and excited about their prospects in order to be fully committed and engaged in the work that they do.




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