When you enter the corporate offices of ViaSat, you’re not walking into the headquarters of a global broadband services company. You’re stepping into a carefully designed work environment. You're invited, for instance, to slide down the two-story slide. You’re offered premium coffee from a full-service coffee bar, and you're shown the bicycles lined up outside the office doors so you can grab one and wheel around the campus.
Not far from ViaSat’s Carlsbad, California, office is athletic apparel company prAna. Outfitted with a climbing wall, an open-air picnic area, and a beautiful water garden, you quickly realize that prAna, too, is using corporate space very deliberately.
Is this all for show? Attention-getting office design has been around long enough to attract its fair share of ridicule. Some argue that creatively crafted workspaces don't all impact productivity, innovation, and communication equally or even very favorably. Others say that office space and culture go hand in hand, with real benefits for performance and innovation.
Here's the thing, though: For all the attention (good and bad) that highly designed office space gets, most of us still don't work in one. It's much more likely that you work someplace with one of the most common (and comparatively easy to replicate, relative to rock walls and slides) features of the last decade's office innovations: an open office.
And as it happens, there's a plenty of research on open offices that not only answers longstanding questions about productivity, but also sheds light on the other elements of our work environments that impact how we work—and one in particular.
On balance, the data are pretty clear: Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’ve also been associated with high staff turnover.
In a study by University of Calgary researchers Aoife Brennan, Jasdeep Chugh, and Theresa Kline, employees experienced more physical stress, reduced job performance, and strained coworker relations when they were relocated from traditional to open offices. A similar study, by Haworth Inc. and the University of Minnesota, confirmed these findings and added evidence of other issues all too familiar to open-office workers: reduced privacy and noise distraction.
Stanford researcher Sara Varlander has likewise pinpointed unintended consequences of open-plan designs that often jibe with complaints we tend to hear from the people who work in them. While those environments did promote more spontaneous and frequent interaction, they tended to encourage interruptions and make deeply focused work difficult. What was designed to enhance teamwork and camaraderie often leads to unsavory experiences, like overheard personal phone calls, bad smells, and temperature issues. All this, Varlander found, led to greater disputes among team members.
If you work in an open office, little of this will probably surprise you. And the fact that these common complaints are now being quantified is leading some companies to rethink open office layouts altogether. Others, meanwhile, are simply calling for what open-office advocates have emphasized for a while—that employees be allowed to find other spaces for quiet solo work (including their homes) when they don't need to collaborate and brainstorm with one another.
But these findings arguably beg bigger questions: If the most popular feature of the past generation in office design is a wash at best and a bust at worst, are we back to square one? If it isn't more open space—let alone zany features like office slides—that measurably improves how people work, what actually does?
It turns out the answer is simple, but possibly harder to design for: autonomy and control over your work environment.
Columbia University psychologists have found "evidence for a biological basis for the need for control and for choice—that is, the means by which we exercise control over the environment." This, they say, is a built-in "imperative for survival" among our species. And according to researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, conditions that support an individual’s exercise of autonomy also enhance performance, persistence, and creativity.
In other words, you can't just install a rock wall or swap cubicles with a communal table and call it a day. Why? Because those elements are static—what employees really need is the freedom to personalize, customize, and shift their workspaces to their liking.
"Today, it is not a one-size-fits-all work environment" of any particular design that has the most impact across the board, Melinda del Toro, VP of human resources at ViaSat, tells me. "With the prevalence of personal devices, people have come to expect that they can personalize their tools, and this extends to their workspace."
ViaSat knows that its showier elements may not make every employee under its roof a fundamentally better worker. In fact, del Toro’s team moved into a new space just a few weeks ago, and one recent morning, she walked in to find a couch moved from the center of the space closer to the window. One of del Toro's team members noticed the natural light by the window and moved the couch to take advantage of it.
Del Toro found this reassuring. The employee hadn't asked permission to move the furniture, but the fact that she had done so anyway pointed to a feature of ViaSat's work environment that no designer can account for directly—its culture, which prizes curiosity and the freedom to find alternative ways of doing things on your own initiative. That couch still sits by the window. It's already the most popular space for people to meet. But del Toro won't be surprised or perturbed if somebody six or 12 months from now moves it someplace else.
For managers who really want to improve their teams' productivity, this freedom to modify the workspace is possibly the single most important thing to encourage. At Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotech company, VP of manufacturing Jim Helmer has his teams design their own lab space.
He takes his staff to an open space in the company’s warehouse that mimics the lab floor where they work. They arrange cardboard cutouts of the equipment in the lab and then simulate the process flow—mimicking how they'd move through the lab both individually and as a team—in order to uncover bottlenecks. Then they rearrange it as needed, first with the cutouts, and then with the real thing back in the lab.
After all, space does matter to how we work. But there's no present way that works for everyone. We need the freedom to choose what works for us. So we probably shouldn't be designing offices down to the last detail—we should be leaving those up to the people who'll actually work in them, and make sure they can always be changed.
Carson Tate is a productivity consultant and the founder of Working Simply, Inc. She is the author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style (Penguin Random House, January 2015). She serves as a coach, trainer, and consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies including AbbVie, Deloitte, Wells Fargo, and United Technologies.