Morale plummets when we go cold on hot desks

There is an office in Tokyo that has an air-conditioning system designed to stimulate light breezes.

Perfume is pumped into the atmosphere at different times of day - citrus for the morning and after lunch, floral notes around mid-afternoon. Specially-composed music is played during the day to stimulate alpha and beta brainwaves, writes Nathalie Towner.

This is an extreme example of a company trying to make the workplace a more pleasant environment. But, while most IT professionals would feel this set up to be somewhat poncy, there is no denying that a pleasant work environment helps keep employees happy.

According to a survey conducted by the Industrial Society entitled The State of the Office, workplaces have a direct impact on performance and productivity, yet 25% of office workers are dissatisfied with their lot.

The survey suggests that the workspace is one of the last bastions of top-down control, and is mostly allocated according to rank and status. This normally translates as an open-plan office for the majority of employees and private offices for senior staff.

Workplace satisfaction does not automatically lie in radical, trendy designs but in finding out what employees actually want. According to the Industrial Society, the main bone of contention is that most of us feel we do not have enough control over our working environment.

New ways of working have not always been well received. Hot desking - where desks are shared and are not formally allocated to one person - has been touted for a while but goes against what most of us feel comfortable with.

The survey found that employees see having their own desk or office as twice as important as flexibility. The idea of flexible workspace is often ignored, with employees turning hot desks into "warm desks" by colonising their favourite workstation with family photos, piles of paper and other personal items.
Personalisation does not stop at the desk area. The survey revealed that 49% of people always use the same mug and 49% have a favourite toilet cubicle that they would actually wait to use if someone got in there first.

However trivial the habits, they can give people a sense of control. Fifty per cent of people feel that if they were forced to abandon their routine productivity would decline and they might even suffer from depression. One US study found that more than 25% of companies that introduced flexible workspace reported a loss of morale.

An advertising agency in Los Angeles encountered disaster when it got rid of fixed desks and private offices. Many employees were wary, but the director's response was simply, "You will have private space, it just won't be personal space."

No one was allowed to work at the same desk for more than a day. In the end, staff began hiding things in corners and forgetting where they left them or storing office equipment in their cars. Some individuals even took over client meeting rooms on a permanent basis. Senior employees pulled rank and were sending in junior staff as early as 6am to reserve a computer and a telephone for them. Within six months the company had reverted to its previous fixed-desk policy.

Of course, if there had been proper staff consultation this probably would never have happened.

Fortunately, most companies do not have the budgets to carry out this sort of disastrous experimentation.

Findings from the Industrial Society show that most office workers are happy with their working space, but this is because they have had to adapt, modify and bend the rules to creating working environments that suit.

Maybe one day the people who inhabit the space will be asked what they want.

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