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Homeless at work: Why companies micromanage where workers sit

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15 2013 2:50 p.m. MDT

Open offices are still the rage, but now companies are moving people around to increase productivity.

Jaysin Trevino, "orijinal" via flickr

It is musical chairs time at work, and researchers love it. Employees less so.

The Wall Street Journal says the next step in office culture involves eliminating personal space: "In recent years, many companies have moved toward open floor plans and unassigned seating, ushering managers out of their offices and clustering workers at communal tables. But some companies — especially small startups and technology businesses — are taking the trend a step further, micromanaging who sits next to whom in an attempt to get more from their employees."

For example, the article says, putting people together who are in the same department can "foster focus and efficiency." On the other hand, mixing up employees can "lead to innovation."

An earlier article in The Wall Street Journal talks about how furniture makers are "racking up sales" by touting "newer office layouts can encourage collaboration and, in some cases, shrink their space requirements and costs."

The spaces may be more familiar to Millennials. "Younger workers were accustomed to using wireless devices in settings like coffee shops," the Journal says, "where they could move around and chat, rather than being tethered to workstations."

The Journal looked at research by furniture maker Herman Miller that found "many cubicles are used for only a bit more than a third of the workday, and individual offices can sit empty 80 percent of the time."

Not everybody likes this open life at work, however.

A New York Times article says people want their space: "The walls have come tumbling down in offices everywhere, but the cubicle dwellers keep putting up new ones. They barricade themselves behind file cabinets. They fortify their partitions with towers of books and papers."

Or they use sound-canceling headphones to get their privacy. Some buildings even incorporate sound-masking "pink noise" to reduce office noise, the New York Times says, "a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices."

"The original rationale for the open-plan office," the New York Times says, "aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate. But it turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one's neighbor."

The type of office space that works best may depend upon the type of industry, according to Computerworld: "(M)any high-tech employees prefer to work in solitude, or at least in an environment quiet enough to foster intense concentration for significant chunks of time. Are these trendy open office layouts torture to the techie brain?"

Another factor to consider in office productivity is light, according to Health Insurance and Protection Daily: "Office workers who sit next to the window as they work are often more productive than colleagues who spend the day further away from daylight. Scientists say that sitting next to the office window could in fact double workers' alertness and make them happier."

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