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Cubicles May Not Square with Workers' Needs, Some Research Indicates

Patricia Wen , The Boston Globe
March 09, 2000

Mar. 8--If American bosses want more employees to think outside the box, they may have to give them a different box -- or maybe no box at all.

      The drab cubicle, according to new research, is stifling the creativity and memory of today's employees. In what perhaps is a no-brainer to the Dilberts of today, psychologists and designers say the solution is new work spaces that will spark people's mental wiring.

      In this new field called "cognitive ergonomics," researchers are talking about everything from transparent cubicle walls to bendable desk accessories. They're questioning the value of office plants and reassessing the corporate contempt for the messy desk.

      And they are debating the bias among modern-day designers for open spaces and neutral colors in the wake of studies showing that employees often complain their workplaces are too noisy or too bland.

      While cognitive ergonomics may sound suspiciously like corporate mind-control -- or even an attempt to sell more office furniture by giving it a new look -- the field has attracted enthusiasts who say it comes at a crucial time when employees are being asked to work harder and take on more challenging work.

      "Work has changed, but workplaces haven't changed with it," said Ellen Keable, a senior associate at the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technology Innovation in New York, a consulting firm for workplace issues.

      Some local companies are trying to change with the times. Terry Kleiman, who is in charge of renovating space for the global marketing division of the Boston Consulting Group, said firms like hers take seriously the new research about how individual work spaces affect productivity.

      The people in her unit, she said, often log more than 55 hours a week. "It's critical that people can personalize their space and control it."

      The ideas go beyond the conventional ergonomic issues, such as what chairs reduce back strain and what keyboards help workers avoid repetitive stress injuries. And as many universities as office-furniture companies are sponsoring research in this new field, which is all about how work spaces can be tailored to meet each person's thinking style.

      "There's no such thing as something that works for everybody," said Alan Hedge, a professor of environmental analysis at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Not everybody stores and processes information in the same way."

      Hedge pointed to considerable research done into the mind-set of the messy desk.

      The earliest work was performed in the 1980s when Thomas Malone of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California divided employees into "pilers" (messy desk) and "filers" (clean desk). He found pilers were better retrievers of information than one might think -- some could quickly pluck a particular memo from a chaotic stack. Researchers also learned that the piles of paper served as visual reminders of what tasks to do.

      Haworth Inc. of Holland, Mich., one of the nation's largest office furniture makers, has taken this research further and, in the past few years, conducted its own study of desk tidiness. It found that many people are mentally wired to more readily recall papers when they were placed in vertical, rather than horizontal, arrangements. Also, varying the shapes, sizes, and angles of desk accessories -- something the company did in its new "Jump Stuff" desk-accessory line -- also helped some people better remember where they put things.

      "A person's desk may look like it's in disarray," said Jeff Reuschel, who works in product design along with a full-time cognitive psychologist at Haworth. "But there may be an intent behind the messiness."

      There's also the importance of visual cues in activating people's minds. James Wise, who spent three decades as a professor of industrial design and psychology, pointed to a survey of students who took tests in two rooms -- one where the information was learned and one in another room. Students scored higher when their test-taking was done in the same room they where first learned the material.

      "They are able to use the visual cues [in the room] to unlock those items held in memory," said Wise, who is now a business consultant in Richland, Wash.

      Wise further suggests the best visual cues for humans are things and patterns that mimic nature, a way of plugging into our biological past. In any event, he said, the corner of an 8-by-8-foot cubicle is perhaps the worst visual trigger for human brains, and companies looking to improve creativity and productivity ought to give workers good things to see.

      But, of course, not everyone can get a window view of Boston Harbor -- nor should they. Paul Cornell, director of human factors and cognitive environment for Steelcase Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., another big office-furniture maker, said work spaces with open, rich scenery may help employees when they're straining for an innovative thought, or one of those "crack-the-nut" moments. But not, perhaps, when they are trying to concentrate on writing or number-crunching.

      Keable, of the Buffalo workplace consulting firm, said peace and quiet was the top priority of 12,000 employees who took part in one of its recent six-year studies. She interprets the survey result as a reaction to the modern-day designers who push the wide-open look as a symbol of employee collaboration. "It flies in the face of a lot of design wisdom, which is `let's take all the walls down,'" she said.

      Perhaps distraction is a factor in a study called "Plants in the Workplace," published by the journal "Environment and Behavior" in May 1998. Research done at the University of Illinois looked at how 80 people performed on a test of lettered identification and sorting while spending time in an office with no plants, some plants, or many plants.

      While people most disliked the looks of the plant-less offices, they actually did the best on the test. The worst performers were those in the room with the most plants, even though they liked the appearance of those rooms the most.

      Researchers noted that the test-takers were doing routine and repetitive tasks. Apparently loath to dismiss the value of plants, they concluded that more work needs to be done on whether plants may "promote human creativity" but just aren't good for work involving "repetitive action."

      A common theme in many studies is the benefit of allowing employees to personalize their work spaces with decorations and creature comforts. A study by Walter Kroner, a professor of architecture at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., showed increased productivity when 400 employees of an insurance company were given control over things like lighting, temperature, and air flow.

      If a worker is fated to remain in a gray cubicle for now, he or she can still do things to improve his or her mental environment, said Fritz Steele, a Brookline organizational behavior consultant. He suggested the workers make conscious choices of where they sit and what they see. Is the view a distraction or an energy-enhancer? And employees should think about adding a desk lamp or organizing papers differently, he said.

      Scott Adams, creator of the comic-strip cubicle-dweller Dilbert, said that almost anything that alters workplace sterility is a good thing. He toiled away in cubicles in corporate settings for more than a decade before becoming a work-at-home cartoonist. Cubicles are about cheapness, he said, not worker happiness.

      "Anything that makes our work spaces less like a cubicle can only be a good thing," he said. "How can you expect people to be creative in a box?   

(c) 2000, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

This news story is not produced by the American Psychological Association and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the association.