The perfect work space

As I write this blog, I am doing so from the comfort of my home office. Comfy chair, nice furniture, the appropriate lighting, and an ergonomic setup make it an ideal place for me to work. It's designed intentionally to be a quiet place where I can do solo work like writing, reading, or analysis. Unfortunately most of us do not have the luxury of creating this kind of space at work.

Budget restrictions, OSHA rules regarding the placement of furniture and equipment, the desire to maximize the number of people in a work area, and other constraints keep us from creating the perfect work environment.

Over the course of my IT career, I have worked in high-rise buildings in the corner office, boiler rooms, airplane hangars, converted hospital rooms (they didn't leave the oxygen installed - bummer), and of course, the cube farm, a.k.a. the rat's maze.

Obviously, some of these were better spaces to work in than others. The worst for me was the year I spent in a moldy boiler room; companies will stick contractors anywhere, unfortunately. My biggest challenge as an IT manager, though, is dealing with cubes. Personally, I hate them. In fact, if I could, I would take a chain saw (or perhaps a light saber - cleaner you know) and slice down the walls of all the cubes in my department's area. Why do I harbor such anger towards my department's furniture? Simply: It is not conducive to teamwork. The arrangement of my staff's work space reminds me of a giant maze with a series of caves. Because they are programmers and analysts, someone thought that they needed isolation and privacy.

I on the other hand, like clean open spaces where people can collaborate, work as a team, share ideas and help one another when they are stuck on something. I understand the need for quiet time and privacy, and that can be arranged in this type of environment, but I believe programmers and analysts are more productive in an open environment than holed up in a corner. I believe this to be particularly true when the group is learning a new skill set or working on a new project.

Getting back to my original point, I believe there are optimal work space conditions that can enhance or hurt a group's productivity and these conditions can vary depending on the type of work assigned to a group, as well as the maturity of the individuals making up the group. In essence, I believe there is a psychology to furniture placement - and I am not talking about Feng Shui (the ancient Chinese tradition of placement and design that guides human beings in living harmoniously with their environments).

Instead I am talking about design psychology, a subset of industrial/organizational psychology that concerns itself with the study of how our environments can shape how we behave. I am sure that most people reading this blog have heard or read about studies regarding colors and the emotions they elicit. Some colors having calming effects, some the opposite.

Design psychology goes further into studying how furniture arrangement, color, decorations, and the like affect workers productivity and emotional well being.

Unfortunately, I have never worked anywhere where there was enough budget to do anything more than recycle old cube furniture or purchase cut rate furniture. You are probably familiar with the situation. Given that we have to take what is provided to us, can technology help us out in making our space more habitable? I believe the answer is yes. Specifically, here are a few of the technologies that can help play a part:

Instant Messaging: I must admit I have been slow to acknowledge that there are benefits to allowing secure IM within the organization. I have seen firsthand that IM can in fact take people in isolated cubes and create an inclusiveness that aids in teamwork. It can also reach out and make a remote office seem much closer. Thin client technologies / VPN: Whether it is Citrix, a Mobikey, or a VPN connection, allowing workers to occasionally work from home via a remote connection can be very beneficial. Not all workers are mature enough, or their home environments may not be conducive to work, but for those that are, one day a week working at home can help them emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Web collaboration tools: Allowing a group to electronically get together and "white board," even within their own office can prove beneficial - again depending on the individuals involved.

Lastly, a willingness to be bold and creative with what you have to work with is important. People can be very territorial and unwilling to have their spaces messed with. A willingness to take on that challenge can be very important in creating the environment that you want.

So while I can't use a chain saw, I am going to try to come up with a creative solution to making the environment more conducive to team work. In the mean time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject. What kind of spaces have you been subjected to? What have you done in your environment to shape the work space? Are any of you lucky enough to have spaces engineered specifically for your use using some of the psychology described earlier? I am open to and need your ideas!