Do You Work in a Zoo?

A psychologist and corporate consultant says office and zoo designers face similar issues. She praises an approach that lets workers out of their cages

Office spaces are by necessity evolutionary. As corporations expand, the number of cubicles and amount of space required increases. The inverse, of course, is also true. But is office design adapting to the realities of the modern working world? Psychologist Judith Heerwagen doesn't think so.

"Sometimes the best thing for workers to do is to leave the workplace altogether and work from home or at a coffee shop," she says. And the fact is, these days they can do just that—without having any effect on productivity. Many workspaces, however, still look, feel, and act like a throwback to corporate days of old, when being out of the office meant being off the radar.

Beware Distraction

Heerwagen, founder of J.H. Heerwagen & Associates, a Seattle research and consulting firm, focuses on design ecology, the study of the relationship between people, psychology, and physical space. Author of Creating and Testing Workplace Strategy, published this year in the California Management Review, Heerwagen equates office design with zoo design. And she says that in recent years, designers from both fields have tried to come up with new ideas chasing similar goals: to provide a more natural environment for occupants—and therefore create greater contentment and satisfaction.

For instance: "People communicate better when they can see one another," says Heerwagen. She argues that "water cooler" conversation is now merely a myth—most conversation happens within cubicles. Low-partitioned cubicles allow for spontaneous collaboration as workers pass by a colleague's cube.

But there's a downside: This style of design can leave workers open to distractions, which can affect productivity. Jonathan Spira, author of The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity, estimated that American businesses lose around $650 billion a year (BusinessWeek, 7/19/07) through workplace distractions. Getting a balanced design that can foster focus and yet encourage interaction and fruitful collaboration is the holy grail of office designers.

Cubicles come with psychological issues. They are often dark and enclosed—and these days they are getting smaller, too. To make them more comfortable, people have traditionally supplied their own design solution: decorating their cubes with photographs of family and friends or tacking up posters of art work they like. But Heerwagen says corporations should be doing more to enhance the design and format of these work environments to make them more accommodating.

Cisco's Connected Workplace

And some are. Heerwagen has done case studies of companies changing their office design to boost productivity and worker satisfaction. In the past four years, Cisco Systems (CSCO) has made a dramatic change in its office culture by introducing a Connected Workplace, designed by HOK International. In this model, there are no assigned workspaces, only small desks or informal meeting tables where workers can set down their laptops. The elimination of the traditional cubicle "pit" allows for sunlight to flood the floor and offer views of the outside world.

Removing assigned desks also encourages mobility throughout the office. Cisco found that its employees were already constantly moving around from desk to desk and exchanging ideas. As such, their new plan included a number of meeting spaces, from formal, closed conference rooms to informal gathering areas—even a central café. The office has a wireless infrastructure that allows workers to move to quiet areas for more focused work whilst staying connected.

Cisco's Connected Workplace is being tested on its San Jose campus. Its changes address many of the problems with cubicle culture that Heerwagen describes. And the new design reflects the new worker mentality—where collaboration is spontaneous and mobility is essential.

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