Walls Do Talk: What Do Workplaces Say?

Workplaces send important messages to employees.

Posted Apr 11, 2011

What messages do our workspaces send us? Researchers from the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California at Berkeley posed open-ended questions about workplaces in a web-based survey. Moezzi and Goins of the CBE deciphered some of these communiqués, wondering what insights could be drawn from the answers. The survey spans 10 years and it covers people working in 192 different office buildings in the U.S.

The CBE surveys are carefully developed to gather information on topics such as satisfaction with the indoor environment. Specific aspects of the environment are probed, including thermal comfort, lighting, acoustic quality, and office layout. People who indicate dissatisfaction with something in their work environment can share information to explain their opinions, and everyone taking the survey has the opportunity to provide general comments on the workplace being studied by the CBE.

At the end of the CBE survey, subjects are asked to include additional comments about either individual workspaces or the entire building. While the answers do not lead to an overall ranking of concerns, here are the top five issues:

  • Bathrooms (cleanliness, odor, location, privacy concerns)
  • Cleaning (insufficient cleaning, disruptive cleaning during workday)
  • Temperature (too much air conditioning, too much or too little heat, varying temperatures)
  • Air quality (fresh air, drafts, dust)
  • Carpet, walls, and furniture (cleanliness, age, esthetics of furniture)

As the researchers summarize: "Basic personal comforts are near the top of the list: Give me a place to park, a reasonable place to eat, somewhere to buy coffee, and a clean and private place to retreat. More design and organizational attention to these issues could reduce occupant stress, and at the same time symbolize an organization's general attention to its employees; the latter is also a potential contributor to productivity" (Leaman and Bordass, 2005).

The researchers' observations about comments on bathrooms are also intriguing: "The top issue identified is 'restrooms,' mentioned in 15 percent of categorized responses to the general workspace and general building questions . . . a restroom is a basic comfort and typically the most private place at work. It appears to be both a magnet for complaints as well as a nexus for judging the thoughtfulness of architects and designers, maintenance personnel and the organizations that employee them, and colleagues."

As Moezzi and Goins summarize: "Occupants read organizational values into physical systems and care not only about doing their work but about how they are treated. . . . (Goins et al. 2010) suggests that the symbolic meaning of workplace organization and design are, overall, more important to worker performance than the physical attributes per se, and many open-ended comments seem to support that conclusion."

Mithra Moezzi and John Goins. 2011.  "Text Mining for Occupant Perspectives on the Physical Workplace."  Building Research and Information, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 169-182.