Since the advent of industrialization, most office workplaces have been designed using a similar template: corner offices for executives, offices with doors for managers, and bullpens or cubicles for rank-and- file workers. However, postindustrialization (with its heavy reliance on technology, information, and services rather than on the production of tangible goods) frequently requires that this traditional approach be rethought. Many organizations today increasingly rely on teamwork and collaboration to help them manage innovations and gain or maintain a competitive edge in the global marketplace. Such workplaces frequently require a more open approach to workplace design in order to encourage synergy. However, this approach, too, is not appropriate for every organization or every situation. In fact, today's technology enables an increasing number of workers to telework without the need for a central office or face-to-face communications to effectively and efficiently accomplish their tasks. Sound workplace design is much more than a matter of aesthetics and decorating trends. Social scientists have an important role in research to determine the underlying principles of workplace design and to make sure that these are appropriately applied so that the needs of the organization and its employees can be met.
Keywords Globalization; Information Technology; Innovation; Organizational Culture; Personal Computer; Postindustrial; Supply Chain; Synergy; Systems Theory; Virtual Team; Virtual Workplace; Workplace
When setting up a new workspace, there are always a lot of things to be done before the space is designed for optimal productivity. However, once the layout of a desk is set, it usually requires little additional thought. For example, I know the best placement for my coffee mug so that I can easily keep my caffeine level up without spilling the contents across the documents on my desk. My chair is positioned so that I am 24 to 28 inches from my monitor, just the right distance for tired eyes to read e-mail. The speaker phone is conveniently located close enough so that I do not have to shout, yet far enough from the wireless headset that I use for dictation so that there is no electronic interference that will make it difficult for the person on the other end of the line to understand me. Task lighting illuminates the places where I write and general lighting keeps me from feeling like I work in a cave — they also both help to reduce eye strain. Writing instruments, pads of paper, reference books, and thumb drives are all within easy reach to keep my flow of thoughts going. These are all aspects of design, as are the arrangement of multiple offices to encourage or inhibit the flow of communication between workers.
Historically, workplace design has been little more than this. Traditionally, many organizations designed their facilities according to standard layouts: corner offices with windows for executives or upper- level managers, offices with doors for other managers, cubicles or bullpens in the middle of the floor for lower-level workers, and a few strategically placed conference rooms that were designed to impress visiting clients. Although many organizations still design their workspaces in this manner today, some observers believe that this inappropriately spends money (particularly for the big offices for upper-level managers) while making communication between employees — particularly those who need to work closely together — difficult. Therefore, many businesses are becoming increasingly concerned with the design of a workplace that will help them attract and retain the best workers. Many workplace designers today, therefore, place emphasis on the interrelatedness of social, organizational, financial, design, and technological aspects of workplace design with the goal of designing workplaces that will support the new ways in which employees must work in the postindustrial age (Magnum, 1999).
Contemporary Workplace Design
Contemporary workplace design philosophy stems from the assumption that an appropriately designed workspace can help enhance an organization's competitive advantage by giving it an aura of innovation, intimacy, and operational excellence. Contemporary workplace design seeks to do this by arranging the workplace in a way to help employees be more productive and be better able to take advantage of the synergy that can occur when people are allowed to interact during creative endeavors. Designers Linda Groat and Lawrence Stern (2000) suggest several ways that these goals can be accomplished. First, workplace design needs to be the outgrowth of a comprehensive business process rather than a narrowly focused facility design process. This means in part that workplace design needs to consider not only the efficiency of a layout or design, but also its effectiveness in supporting workers to getting their jobs done and increasing their productivity. In addition, workplace design should take into account not only the physical architecture of the workplace but the social architecture as well. In the past, it was frequently assumed that it was necessary to reduce the "nonessential" interaction of workers for fear of losing productivity to social interaction. However, today's organizations increasingly rely on teamwork to produce synergy that results in innovation, particularly when dealing with technology. In such cases, it can actually be an advantage for team members to be able to easily interact with each other rather than being isolated in a cubicle where each person works on his or her own piece of the process. To design such workspaces, many theorists recommend that workspace design decisions not be made in isolation by individuals not directly affected by the design but by teams that represent all affected parties (Groat & Stern, 2000).
There are a number of trends that are included in the new approach to workplace design (Richter, 2001). Some of these are aesthetic in nature and are meant to express associated aspects of the organizational culture (for example, the use of unconventional color palettes to express an innovative or creative organization, or an open floor plan to express free thinking). However, others are more scientifically based. For example, many workplaces today use open workspaces to encourage collaborative teamwork with fellow employees and boost creativity and innovation. This is often done through such things as the use of open-floor plans to encourage collaboration and the design of offices without doors for managers to make the managers appear more welcoming to subordinates. Further, individual workspaces are often designed with low cubicle partitions in order to encourage interactions between coworkers and to help employees feel more comfortable. For similar reasons, desks are often placed facing each other within multiple-person cubicles.
As appealing as such ideas may sound on a superficial level, little scientific research has been done to back these claims. Further, it is important to realize that such open designs will not foster productivity in every type of organization or work situation. For example, doors are frequently put on the doors to managers' offices not so much to keep others out, but in order to afford managers the privacy they need to do confidential work such as writing performance appraisals, counseling employees, and talking to clients. Further, in offices that require the use of classified material, it is frequently important that the doors can be locked to keep out others without a proper clearance level.
In addition, not everyone works well in an open-floor plan situation that encourages interruptions from coworkers and exposes one to numerous other distractions. Fortunately, it is not always necessary to go into a centralized location with multiple offices in order to be a productive and effective worker. Most employees who work in office workplaces use a computer to input data and information, create and manipulate documents, or perform other tasks. Many times, their interactions with clients or customers (and often even with fellow employees) are over the phone, by email, or in face-to-face contact outside the company's offices. In many cases, therefore, there is no reason for these tasks to be done from a centralized organizational office. With a computer and Internet connectivity, it is not even necessary in many instances to have face-to-face meetings. Audio and videoconferencing capabilities and electronic document exchange capabilities can often obviate the need for local or long-distance travel to meetings, thereby reducing or eliminating not only the expenses related to out-of-town travel but also the need for an artistically designed workplace and high-end conference rooms to...
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