Open office concepts: Employers love ’em … employees hate ’em.

You probably suspected this already, but employee surveys continue to show that open-plan workplaces are a source of job dissatisfaction.

One of the most recent research studies surveyed ~4,000 adults who work in offices and found that employees dislike open office concepts for a host of reasons, including:

  • Lack of privacy
  • Interruption and/or distraction from fellow employees
  • Noise levels
  • Inescapable odors
  • Temperature control issues

In fact, feelings run so strongly against open offices that employees would prefer to give up the following perks as a tradeoff:

  • Vacation days
  • Year-end bonus
  • Office coffee machine
  • Access to a window or natural light

And for the cherry on top, a significant percentage of respondents claimed that an open office environment would be a deal-breaker when considering a new job — either inside their current company or going someplace else.

At a time when companies are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates to fill open positions, that factor is perhaps the most impactful one of all.

Against this backdrop of “passive-aggressive” attitudes about open-plan workspaces, many companies keep on merrily designing open-office environments or renovating existing spaces to conform to new open-plan design schemes.

Purportedly the reason for open office environments is to save money — but is that really the case? It’s true that some building and partition costs can be reduced, but how about the impact on worker productivity?

Actually, there’s another, perhaps unspoken reason why companies love open offices: they can monitor (read: spy on) their employees more easily.  That’s something most people find quite distasteful — at least here in America where “individualism” continues to thrive as a bedrock cultural principle.  And the plain truth is that people like having some control over their workspace.  After all, it’s a place where they spend eight hours of every workday.

But even with these basic truisms at work, there are new developments that could be changing the whole notion of the office environment. It’s more than just conceivable that we’ll be seeing more spaces adapt to accommodate workers who move from environment to environment based on the needs of the moment.

As more of the “guts” of the office are housed electronically — and portably — the whole notion of a “home desk” may be becoming less and less relevant. Jay Osgerby, a partner in workspace design firm Barber & Osgerby puts it this way:

“The desk is dead. I don’t even know if the office building as we know it today will be in existence.”

I’m not at all sure that Osgerby’s prediction will come true any time soon. Who knows, his view might turn out to be as off-base as the open-office concept.  But it is interesting to observe how the office environment is changing as the nature of business evolves.

What about your own office environment? What’s good and not-so-good about the concept?  What sort of personal horror stories do you have — or conversely, do you have good tales to tell?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Personality and Productivity in the Workplace: When Grumpy is Good

NoWhen it comes to which characteristics people consider the most important for being successful in the working world, we hear same traits cited so often, it becomes like a litany.

A recent survey of ~500 business managers in the communications and technology fields, conducted by digital education company Hyper Island, confirms it yet again.

When the survey respondents were asked to identify which traits were most important, here were their top answers:

  • A winning personality (e.g., creative, open-minded, positive):  ~78% identified as among the most desirable traits.
  •  Cultural alignment (making decisions that reflect the values shared with their organization):  ~53% identified as among the most desirable traits.
  •  The skill-sets of the worker:  Only ~39% identified this as the most important trait.

Regarding skill-sets, it seems that despite the inexorable increase in technical expertise and acumen required of workers in nearly every business discipline, many people continue to believe that personality, attitude and a team mentality trump capabilities and expertise.

In other words, it’s the notion that it’s easier to educate someone with a positive attitude than it is to work with someone who really knows his or her stuff, but has a bad attitude, is a wet dishrag, or whatever.

unhelpful employeeWell, hold that thought.  Because now we have new research from analysts at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois which is giving us another angle to consider.

In their studies, these researchers have found that workers with “net-negative” personality traits appear to be more efficient in their jobs than those who possess “net-positive” personalities.

What’s going on?

To come to this conclusion, the university researchers had their study participants meticulously document all of their activities over a prescribed period of time, along with completing a survey that measured attitudes about their jobs, their workplace and their colleagues.

As it turns out, it’s not that one group puts in more time than the other at the office.  It’s that workers with “sunnier” dispositions are more open to performing tasks that may be outside of their comfort zone.

They’re more inclined to “have a go” at different activities, because they’re naturally more curious … and more willing to step in and support the larger work team.

… Especially if their boss requests it.

By contrast, grumpier employees are less open to novelty … more suspicious of taking on other tasks … and more likely to put up subtle (or not-so-subtle) psychological barriers when it comes to being approachable about taking on those tasks.

By their behavior and body language, they may often be successful in dissuading their superiors from even asking them to take on new and different job tasks.

And if they’re asked, they’re less likely to acquiesce.

As a result, these employees tend to spend more time on a fewer variety of tasks – the ones they already know.  Which, in turn, makes them more likely to further hone their skills in those areas.

I don’t think these new findings challenge the underlying idea that employees with a positive attitude are a strong asset to companies.

But perhaps a smidgeon more credit may be due to the employees who are on the other end of the scale.  When you find them sitting alone in the break room, or avoiding gathering around the water cooler, they may be investing more amount of time in their work tasks — and developing a higher level of skill as a result.

I guess every cloud has a silver lining …

What’s the Latest with Employee Satisfaction?

Coming off the worst recession in memory, just how happy are Americans in their jobs today?

An online survey of ~450 American adults conducted in late February by enterprise feedback management and research firm MarketTools has found that only ~34% consider themselves “very satisfied” in their current job positions:

 Very satisfied: ~34%
 Somewhat satisfied: ~40%
 Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied: ~10%
 Somewhat dissatisfied: ~10%
 Very dissatisfied: ~5%

Those results would seem to portend that a significant number of people will be looking to change jobs in the near-term future.

And in fact, nearly 50% of these respondents reported that they’ve “considered” leaving their current positions – and more than 20% have actually applied for another job within the past six months.

What’s causing dissatisfaction among employees? They’re the usual things, beginning with salary, although many respondents cited multiple contributing factors to employee dissatisfaction:

 Salary level: ~47% of respondents
 Level of workload: ~24%
 Lack of opportunity for advancement / career development: ~21%
 Relationship with manager / supervisor: ~21%
 Medical benefits issues: ~20%
 Work environment: ~14%
 Length of commute / distance from home: ~14%

It shouldn’t be too surprising to witness an increase in job-hopping behavior following economic downturns. For those lucky enough to have held onto their positions during the recession, the working environment has likely been more stressful, as employers required more productivity from fewer workers.

It’s also likely that benefits packages were reduced to some degree. So it’s only natural for people to nurse some residual negative feelings about the situation and to possibly consider jumping ship to another employer.

But would that be the best move?

Often, moving to a new employer doesn’t result in the improvements the employee expected to find. And smarter companies will use the improving economic climate (such as it is) to reward those employees who hung in there when times were tough. After all, these are their better workers!

Salary and benefit increases are always going to be appreciated … but so is the opportunity for continued growth and career development.

It’ll be quite interesting to see what the job-hopping statistics show a few months from now.

Surprise! Deep down, we actually like the 24/7/365 work environment.

It’s a common gripe you hear among business professionals: The proliferation of laptop computers and mobile communication devices has contributed to a “24/7/365” work culture, making it more difficult than ever to disengage from the office and putting bigger stresses on work-life balance.

The irony, people claim, is that laptops, PDAs and other equipment which promise to improve productivity and make daily work tasks easier, have actually created more work and resulted in longer hours devoted to the job. And you can’t escape it — at home, on vacation, or wherever you are.

But now, along comes a research study that gives the lie to these assertions. Manpower firm Kelly Services has just released the results of a massive worldwide survey of ~100,000 people in the workplace. Among the survey’s findings: Three-fourths of respondents appreciate the opportunity to remain in constant contact with work – even though one-third of them report working more hours each week as a result.

And among the North American survey respondents, 64% say they’re happy with their current work-life balance, and more than half claim their productivity at work is “much better” as a result of utilizing the new technologies.

So how do we explain the difference between all the negative “cocktail chatter” we hear … and the far more positive survey responses provided when no one’s looking?

It might be because people tend to exaggerate negative opinions – especially when surrounded by spouses and friends who are more than eager to lend moral support – all the while murmuring protestations of disapproval about the “big, bad organization.”

But I think the reason for the incongruity is more basic. On a theoretical level, most of us want to preserve the boundaries between our work life and our personal life. It just seems like it’s the correct position to take on the issue. But another part of us feels a need to stay connected … to be continually “in the know” and not miss a beat — even for an hour.

Moreover, in today’s challenging employment environment, being hyper-connected and super-clued in with the company is more crucial than ever, for self-preservation if for no other reason.

Besides, when it comes to being in control, most people just like that feeling — a lot.