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Thinking Inside the Box

When it comes to office space, our “happy place” is being the boss.

Key points

  • The perfect working environment depends on the person just as much as the space.
  • The size of the desk, availability of natural light, and the quality of the air affect employee performance.
  • Employees are at both their happiest and their most productive when they can control their workspace.

On the opposite side of my co-working desk is a project manager who’s been in meetings since he sat down. His constant voice makes it impossible for me to concentrate. While he gestures wildly and talks at the top of his lungs about some buttons on a website, I look around and realize that I’m the odd one out in this space. Most everyone else is also chatting away on video calls–that is, those who aren’t playing ping-pong.

Anyone in this room who wanted to get focused work done has given up by now, having left for a quieter corner or a different office altogether.

Co-working has revolutionized the way we work. It provides a flexible environment for startups whose needs and headcounts change rapidly. Many of these spaces come with an open-plan layout and fresh designs that are supposed to boost creativity and promote community spirit.

Open spaces promise to bring people together and increase the occurrence of serendipitous meetings–those water cooler or coffee chats where important conversations can happen. But the open-plan office can be challenging for people who need to do deep work, especially during lunchtime or whenever noise levels rise.

The perfect working environment depends on the person just as much as the space. Depending on who uses it and what they want to achieve there, the same office can be heaven or hell.

A workplace is more than a physical place where work is done. The more we learn about how people work, the more we understand that the environment affects work performance in profound, sometimes surprising, ways. Everything in the environment matters: The size of the desk, the availability of natural light, and the air quality. These elements are all predictors of our comfort, our happiness, and ultimately, of our productivity.

Two kinds of nightmares

When Meta’s Facebook built their new open-plan campus in Menlo Park in 2015, Stack Overflow co-founder Joel Spolsky said in an interview at the GeekWire Summit: “Developers don’t want to overhear conversations. That’s ideal for a trading floor, but developers need to concentrate.”

One simple solution for decreasing noise in an open-plan office is to create spaces where loud talkers can make phone calls and private workspaces where others can get focused work done.

Cubicles, for one, can offer some degree of privacy. The infamous office layout was first introduced in the 1960s by Robert Propst, who worked for the furniture company Herman Miller. It offered a solution to a problem by providing a more adaptable workspace than the traditional office spaces that had come before.

One large issue posed by cubicles is that the word “cubicle” has become synonymous with the kind of workplace in which nobody wants to work. At the mere mention of the word, people immediately think of a depressing office with poor lighting, poor ventilation, and dated furniture.

Today's office workers are more familiar with open-plan spaces and their clusters of desks separated by only a small partition–if separated at all. Some organizations even go as far as to practice “hot desking,” where desks are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.

The advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day is best known for their “1984” commercial for Apple’s Macintosh computer and the invention of “hot desking.” In the early 90s, they introduced a large central space with no walls or cubicles (as well as various other silly ideas, such as a skateboard ramp and a sand volleyball court).

As TBWA\Chiat\Day soon found out, hot desking is not for everyone. During the age of clunky laptops and heavy paperwork, some employees even went so far as to use the trunks of their cars as filing cabinets.

Our “happy place” is being the boss

Studies tell us that employees are happiest and most productive when they can control their workspace. In one of the most well-known studies from 2010, Craig Knight and S. Alexander Haslam showed that people perform best when encouraged to decorate their surroundings as they see fit–with plants, knick-knacks, and family photos.

Naturally, environmental factors can affect employee performance as well. Regarding acoustics, for example, a study in 2009 at the University of Turku in Finland evaluated how well workers did on cognitive tasks in different sound environments. The team found that when workers had to perform with irrelevant speech sounds in the background, their level of comfort declined, along with their performance on reading comprehension and number-recall tasks.

Allowing employees to manipulate their work environment pays dividends. In a 2009 study by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Massachusetts, researchers looked at the effects of an ergonomics training course in combination with the availability of highly adjustable office chairs. Those in the program not only demonstrated a lower risk for musculoskeletal problems, but they also felt better about their work.

Meta goes back to the box

As reported by the Wall Street Journal just last month, Meta seems to have recognized the value in providing employees with quiet and more private spaces and is now moving towards spaces that encourage focused work. They hired a design firm to come up with a solution, and the designers seem to have landed on something familiar–private spaces that very much resemble cubicles.

When it comes to designing offices, no single layout works for every company and employee. A cubicle might best fit tasks requiring focused attention or confidentiality. For creative collaboration and teamwork, an open-plan office might work better. Either way, it’s important to get our workspace right: It significantly impacts employee well-being, job satisfaction, and performance–and it is where many of us spend a third of our lives.


Robertson M, Amick BC 3rd, DeRango K, Rooney T, Bazzani L, Harrist R, Moore A. The effects of an office ergonomics training and chair intervention on worker knowledge, behavior and musculoskeletal risk. Appl Ergon. 2009 Jan;40(1):124-35. doi: 10.1016/j.apergo.2007.12.009. Epub 2008 Mar 11. PMID: 18336791.

Knight C, Haslam SA. The relative merits of lean, enriched, and empowered offices: an experimental examination of the impact of workspace management strategies on well-being and productivity. J Exp Psychol Appl. 2010 Jun;16(2):158-72. doi: 10.1037/a0019292. PMID: 20565201.

A. Kaarlela-Tuomaala, R. Helenius, E. Keskinen & V. Hongisto (2009) Effects of acoustic environment on work in private office rooms and open-plan offices – longitudinal study during relocation, Ergonomics, 52:11, 1423-1444, DOI: 10.1080/00140130903154579

Inside Meta’s Push to Solve the Noisy Office. The Facebook and Instagram parent needed a new setup for the loud hybrid workplace. Here’s a first look at the quieter cubicle. By By Chip CutterFollow and Meghan Bobrowsky…

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