ITHACA, N.Y. -- A Cornell University study finds that small-scale, team-oriented offices with few Dilbert-like panels are more effective work environments than private, closed offices because they more readily foster communication, cohesiveness and organizational learning among co-workers without undermining their ability to concentrate, the study finds.
"Surprisingly, one-person closed offices, often preferred by workers and seen as the Shangri-la of office designs, were not universally viewed as the best or most effective work environment," concludes Franklin Becker, director of the Cornell International Workplace Studies Program (IWSP), and his colleague, William Sims. Both are professors of facility planning and management and human-environment relations in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell.
Becker and Sims analyzed data from 229 professionals at eight small firms, selected because small firms must demonstrate speed, agility and innovation to survive rapidly shifting and unpredictable market forces. The results are published in a report, "Offices That Work: Balancing Communication, Flexibility and Cost," available as a pdf file on the new IWSP web site http://iwsp.human.cornell.edu .
Younger workers, in particular, reported a stronger preference for team-oriented offices because they provide greater access to colleagues from whom younger respondents felt they could learn. Older respondents, however, found it more difficult to concentrate in open offices, possibly because over a number of years they had become more comfortable with traditional offices, Becker says.
"Considering that lower and middle managers spend 27 to 87 percent of their time in oral communication -- most of it face-to-face -- and that upper-level managers spend even more of their time in this way, team-oriented offices make good business sense," says Becker, who compared private offices, shared private offices, cubicles and team-oriented offices (groups of small desks in an open area). The more open, team-oriented offices are also very flexible and economical, the researchers say.Becker and Sims were surprised to find that many surveyed workers reported being able to concentrate in very open environments. The absence of panels made it possible for co-workers to learn to read subtle behavioral cues that helped them know when it was a good time to ask a question or start a conversation and when to leave a person alone. There was also a shift to thinking about what helped productivity in a team, rather than focusing only on one's own productivity. "We find that this minute's interruption can be annoying, but over the life of a project, such interruptions tend to be seen as contributing to overall success," Becker points out
Cubicles, on the other hand, are expensive, inflexible, provide little acoustic privacy and do not promote team communication or collaboration, the researchers say.
Becker and Sims are both experts in innovative approaches to planning, design and management of facilities to help organizations improve performance and reduce occupancy costs. They are principal researchers for IWSP, which for several years has been exploring ways in which workplace strategies -- from managing a real estate portfolio to workplace space allocation -- help organizations manage uncertainty and become more agile. IWSP is supported by a consortium of private- and public-sector organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.
The web publication is based, in part, on the research of three former graduate students in the IWSP program: Kelley Dallas, Amit Ramani and Anne Scott. Although the publication may be downloaded for free at the web site mentioned above, hard copies also may be obtained by contact Franklin Becker at email@example.com .
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o For information on the International Workplace Studies Program (IWSP) at Cornell