The psychological highways, byways and cul-de-sacs of office management

By Craig Knight PhD; S. Alexander Haslam PhD

Edition 1 – August 2012 Pages 06-08

Tags: psychology • design • productivity • research

We are defined by our space. Space constrains us and allows us to grow. In space we develop relationships with others and we confirm our sense of identity and where we belong. Yet psychologists have only recently begun to study workspace in terms of its importance for productivity and well-being

We take it as a given that we can decorate our home to our tastes. We decide where the sofa should go, what colours we want on the walls, where we will meet with our friends and where we want to retire for solitude. And the result of these arrangements says something about our identity as human beings. Our homes shape our interactions, highlight our interests and illuminate our perspective on life. Allowing others into ‘our space’ is both personal and significant. When people respect or abuse our space they respect or abuse us. Yet psychologists have paid little attention to this area, perhaps because it all seems so obvious. Consequently, in the workplace, consultants, designers and managers have matters of workspace largely to themselves. Their activities are seldom subject to scientific scrutiny and a very different model of space use has emerged to dominate understanding and practice.

In the office, our space is shaped and controlled by those who assume the expertise and authority to take decisions on our behalf. This dominion of space management is coming under increasing psychological questioning. What are the ramifications of managerial control of the workspace in terms of both well-being and productivity?


The roots of the modern office

The origins of offices can be traced back to antiquity, but took on their recognizable form during the industrial revolution as a new class of professional clerks came under increasing supervision from a growing number of managers. This drove demand for standardised workplaces where managers assumed greater control of their workforce. In the early twentieth century the scientific management movement, dominated by Frederick Taylor, looked for the ‘one best way’ of doing any particular job. ‘Taylorism’ paid particular attention to how environments were geared to support the work performed. It emphasised two key managerial objectives. First was the need to remove from a workspace everything except the materials required to do a given job. This made the space bend flexibly to management’s requirements and left the workers with negligible distractions outside their given tasks. Second, tight control was exerted over workspace design and use, thus ensuring conformity to standardised, trusted work practices which could be enforced as necessary and altered as required. Surveillance was central to this control.

The modern office: A brave new way?

Taylor’s scientific management principles have exerted a strong influence over office design and general management for over 100 years. Most particularly, they have been translated into a philosophy of lean offices in which emphasis is placed on the creation of uncluttered, open, and flexible space. Rather confusingly, this space is often marketed under the banner of ‘new ways of working’. Its doctrine regards clutter — particularly that created by employees themselves — as an unhealthy, unsafe, and unnecessary impediment to office productivity and efficiency. It is also seen as an obstruction to communication and to the acceptance of an organisation’s preferred identity and ethos.

A key selling point of open-plan ‘clean’ space is that it can be quickly adapted to suit the changing needs of an organisation and to meet demands for a flexible workforce. Whatever the precise configuration of space, it is the demands and influence of managers that predominate. The voice of the rank-and-file employee is largely silenced. Partly in reaction to this spartan design process, an alternative movement has developed over the past thirty years. This has attempted to incorporate the (assumed) tastes and objectives of employees. Those who advocate this approach argue for the creation of enriched spaces emphasising bold, invigorating and creative designs. Enrichment is built on an intellectual infrastructure where stimulating, often high-design spaces increase employees’ well-being and promote interest, creativity and productivity.

Reliable evidence which might establish the relative merits of the lean and enriched approaches is extremely sparse. The extensive literature which does exist tends to be derived from case studies based on the opinions of managers and implementers who have a vested interest in a project’s success. What is scientifically clear is that strategies of both lean and enriched workspace share an inclination to impose designs on workers. Studies attest that employees frequently reject the visions of designers and space managers (e.g., Baldry & Hallier, 2010; Chandler, Lalonde, Sokol & Hallett, 2003; Knight & Haslam 2010a) . When this occurs, enrichment – like lean – can be a basis for discomfort, disenchantment and disengagement.

The importance of identity realisation

The concept of identity is central to everybody’s experience of life and work. Yet, as we have seen, the identities realised through workspace design tend to be those of the organisation and its management. Indeed, in lean, flexible spaces employees’ expressions of their own identities are actively suppressed in the search for optimised organisational performance. Yet psychology’s message is straightforward; helping employees to realise their own identity at work accounts for nearly 20 times as much of the variance in pro-organisational behaviour as financial incentives (Tyler & Blader, 2000). In simple terms, when it comes to harnessing employees’ energies; how well you treat them and how much you involve them will be at least as important as how much you pay them.

Recent and ongoing research

Our own work in this area has attempted to develop the understanding of the psychology of office space in two ways. First, we have conducted a series of large-scale surveys with the aim of providing integrated analyses of the relationships between levels of enrichment and empowerment at work and feelings of well-being and organisational identification. Statistical modeling of the data suggests that job satisfaction and well-being are compromised where employees are subjected to high surveillance and/or have little input into design.

Yet there is a problem with survey research. Surveys, no matter how thorough, only show corellational data. For example, it might be the case that individuals who have no input into the design process and who find themselves under high surveillance are simply less competent, less trustworthy and unhealthier than other workers and it is these factors that explain their complaints of dissatisfaction and illness. Survey data depends upon — possibly fallacious — interpretation.

In order to make causal statements about how workspace affects psychology and behaviour it is necessary to conduct experimental research. In so doing the nature of office space may be systematically manipulated. We have conducted a series of experiments that do precisely this.

Our participants were asked to perform a range of tests (e.g., attending to detail, processing data and managing information) in the same office but with the workspace managed in different ways. The key questions were whether and how these different arrangements would affect participants’ productivity and well-being.

In the lean condition, the office was a clean space containing everything necessary to perform the office tasks with no other distractions.

The enriched office had been decorated by the experimenter with both plants and art. The empowered office allowed participants to decorate the office themselves using the same range of plants and art available to the experimenter.

Finally, the disempowered office also allowed participants to decorate the office themselves but after they had done this their design was overridden and the office was re-arranged to the experimenter’s own specification.

Across eight years of investigation results have been robust, clear and dramatic (see panel on page 8). Relative to the baseline of the lean condition, participants in the enriched office have worked faster but with no more errors. Consistent increases in productivity of up to 17% have been recorded. Productivity increased still further — by up to 32% compared to a lean, flexible office — where participants were empowered to develop their own environment (either individually or in teams). Participants’ reported sense of well-being has been consistently higher with increases of up to 50% recorded. However, if peoples’ choices were overridden, levels of performance and well-being were no different from those observed in the lean office. Based on these results we can conclude that if organisations develop workspace that pays no heed to employees’ own design preferences, they might end up undermining the very things that they seek to enhance.

Innovation not reinvention: a conclusion

After considerable neglect, the psychology of office space is beginning to impact business awareness. Key to this development is a range of systematic studies that have unearthed data which seriously, consistently and substantively challenge the assumptions underlying the philosophy of modern business environments. This applies most particularly to the flexible lean office which — in one form or another — has prevailed for over a century. The merits of lean appear highly questionable once subjected to scientific scrutiny. And, although there is evidence of positive outcomes if work environments are more stimulating to the senses, work experiences remain suboptimal without considerable direct input from employees themselves.

Our conclusion is that space should not be left in the hands of designers, consultants and managers; it is far too important for that. When users are excluded from creating and directing their own environment, they tend to relate to that space in less effective and thereby uneconomic ways. If business genuinely wants to develop sustainable patterns of use for increasingly valuable space then it is time everybody became involved in its management. W&P

Craig Knight

is a chartered doctor of psychology, a director of Identity Realization Limited (which specifically investigates optimal office space and its management) and an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter.

S. Alexander Haslam

is professor of social psychology at the University of Exeter. Alex was awarded the Kurt Lewin award from the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology for outstanding contribution to research in social psychology.

Further reading

Baldry, C., & Hallier, J. (2010). Welcome to the house of fun: Work space and identity. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 31, 150 – 171.

Chandler, M.J., Lalonde, C.E., Sokol, B.W, & Hallett, D. (2003). Personal persistence, identity development, and suicide: A study of native and non-native North American adolescents – Introduction. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 68, 1-18

Knight, C.P., & Haslam, S.A. (2010a). Your Place or Mine? Organisational Identification and Comfort as Mediators of Relationships Between the Managerial Control of Workspace and Employees’ Satisfaction and Well-being. British Journal of Management, 21, 717—735.

Knight, C.P., & Haslam, S.A. (2010b). The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16, 158 – 172.

Tyler, T.R., & Blader, S (2000). Procedural justice, social identity and behavioral engagement. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press


Editor’s footnote:

We asked Craig to write about the research that he and Alex have been conducting over several years because it is one of the best examples of ‘real science’ being applied to the workplace. We aim to help them to get their ground-breaking findings out to the global industry. Do please join this discussion with Craig and others on our Work&Place Linkedin Group.

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