Is the Corner Office Worth It?

Everything we think we know about workspaces may be wrong.

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56 percent of workers said that sitting at a desk caused them to put on weight.
56 percent of workers said that sitting at a desk caused them to put on weight.

John Vogel is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

During the course of my career, I have occupied over a dozen different workspaces for a variety of for-profit, nonprofit and university employers. Not once was I formally asked if I liked my office or if it was adequate for the type of work I do. In fairness, when I was the boss, I did not ask my employees if their workspace met their needs, even when moving into new space.

We tend to treat decisions about office space the same way we decide employee's salary and benefits. The CEO or the senior management team weighs the quality of the work environment against the cost. They assume that every employee wants more space and better views. The nicest space gets allocated to the most senior officers and the balance gets distributed based on some kind of hierarchical process.

Even in office environments that are designed to be egalitarian and where senior managers occupy cubicles or work at trading desks, the decision about the office layout still tends to be made at the top with little input from the employees.

Productivity

Baked into this top-down decision-making is the assumption that employees will be equally productive working in cubicles, at trading desks or in private offices. Even if management suspects that there might be a relationship between the quality of the space and productivity, they believe that it is impossible to measure.

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In this context, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister carried out a very revealing experiment. They had 600 software developers at 92 different companies complete a series of benchmark coding and testing tasks in something they called the Coding War Games. Each participant worked on his or her own and kept a log of the amount of time he or she spent working. This exercise was designed to help companies see how their programmers compared with programmers at other companies.

The performance of the programmers was evaluated using a number of criteria. The best programmers outperformed the worst by a ratio of 10 to 1. The best programmers also outperformed the average programmer by 2.1 times. In other words, programmers in the top quartile were significantly more productive than those in the bottom quartile.

DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what factors best explained superior performance. They were surprised to discover that there was almost no correlation between salary and performance. They also found almost no correlation between years of experience and superior performance. "People who had ten years of experience did not outperform those with two years of experience," Demarco and Lister wrote in their book: Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. They also found little correlation between the quality of the work and the amount of time spent on it, with the zero defect workers taking, "slightly less time, on average to complete the exercise than those who had one or more defects."

What DeMarco and Lister discovered was that the one area in which there was a high correlation was that people from the same organization tended to perform at similar levels. "Over the whole sample, the best organization (the one with the best average performance of its representatives) worked more than ten times faster than the worst organization. In addition to their speed, all competitors from the fastest organizations developed code that passed the major acceptance test," they explained.

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Quality of Work Space

Prior to starting the Coding War Games, DeMarco and Lister gathered a variety of data from the participants, including information about each participant's workspace. The table below comes from their book. It clearly shows that the participants who performed in the top quartile had much more positive things to say about their workspace than those who performed in the bottom quartile. Here is a sample of answers from the questionnaire participants filled out before they participated in the Coding War Games:

Recently, the popular press has begun to focus on the downside of open office designs. Ann Murphy Paul wrote an article for Time.Com called "Workplace Woes: The 'Open' Office Is a Hotbed of Stress." In the article, she cites an interesting study from The Journal of Applied Psychology:

40 female clerical workers were subjected to three hours of 'low-intensity noise' designed to simulate the sounds heard in a typical open office. A control group experienced three hours of blessed quiet. Afterward, both groups were given puzzles to solve; unbeknownst to them, the puzzles had no solution. The participants who'd been treated to a quiet work setting kept plugging away at the puzzles, while the subjects who'd endured the noisy conditions gave up after fewer attempts.

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Some Implications

In terms of space preferences and personality, programmers and clerical workers are not representative of most office workers. But is there really a typical office worker? Given a choice, some people like standup desks and others prefer padded furniture. Some workers insist on meticulously neat offices while others have stacks of paper everywhere. Some people prefer absolute silence while others prefer to work at Starbucks.

It is noteworthy that in designing the Coding War Games, DeMarco and Lister used subjective as well as objective measures. "We made no objective measurements of noise level," they wrote. "We simply asked people whether they found the noise level acceptable or not. As a result, we cannot distinguish between those who worked in a genuinely quiet workplace and those who were not bothered by a noisy workplace."

The ability to customize space to meet the individual needs of employees has limits in most office environments. There are also cost implications. However, some things--such as telephone features, interruptions and lighting--can usually be fixed inexpensively. Noise reduction, private space and better work surfaces may be costly. But even these upgrades can be handled creatively.

Once we get away from the idea that a person's office is a direct reflection of his or her importance, people are sometimes willing to accept smaller offices in exchange for better common space. Most importantly, when people have some control over their space and are allowed to modify it to fit their needs, DeMarco and Lister have found that "their space is viewed as an additional benefit."

Conclusion

In addition to showing respect for your employees and their unique workspace preferences, the biggest reason to solicit input from office workers is cost. Most companies pay office workers about 20 times more in salary and benefits than they pay in rent. Thus, if a 10% savings in office rent results in a 10% loss in productivity, then for every ten cents of savings the company is losing two dollars.

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