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The History and Psychology of Office Space

From personal experience, I am fully aware of office desk etiquette and the implications that can come from tampering with an employee’s desk area. 
Before I get into the more contemporary psychological factors, let’s take a step back to the 1920s, where one of the earliest management gurus had a dream of maximising the efficiency and productivity of employees in the work place. 

Frederick Taylor and the 1920s Office

Frederick Taylor was arguably the first person to become widely acknowledged for his theories covering the general benefits of open plan office spaces. His core concept was that the desks should all be facing towards a supervisor.

He believed that this type of layout enhanced productivity and work-rate due to the fact the supervisors could constantly manage their staff. Funnily enough, the main reason why the ‘open office’ didn’t burst onto the scene for another two decades was because of inadequate lighting. Most desks were actually positioned around the edges of rooms (near windows) because of the natural light. It was only in the 1950s where the universal office was properly introduced.

The Introduction of the Universal Office – 1950s 

Although the offices of the 1950s and 60s weren’t too dissimilar to the open offices of the last 30 years, the main difference was the advancement of lighting in the creation of fluorescent lighting, ventilation and air-conditioning. Managers were commonly situated in floor-to-ceiling glass offices, whereas other employees were situated in open offices, or ‘bullpens.’

This work environment presented an easily-adaptable economical solution to the less adaptable environments of the 1920s-40s. 

The Rise and Fall of the Office Cubicle – 1960-1980 

Once the 60s arrived, it was American company Herman Miller who created the infamous office cubicle. It was actually first known as the Action Office System (AOS) and consisted of three walled cubicles with desks and work stations varying in heights, allowing more privacy and increased productivity.

While it was initially seen as a liberating move, the cubicle slowly began to show its true colours, specifically in regards to the psychological effects they were having on employees.

The cubicle began life as a liberating working concept and unfortunately become literally the opposite, as by the time the 1980s arrived, office cubicles had hit rock bottom.

Instead of liberating workers, companies began using cubicles to stuff as many people into a small space as possible. 

The Office Cubicle as an Oppressive Symbol – 1980s – Present 

Through the 90s and into the present, the cubicle has been transformed into a negative symbol of oppressive corporate culture. Working cubicles are often compared to battery farms, in that employees go to work, sit in their cubicle and work away without seeing anyone else within their immediate proximity – just like battery farmed chickens.

The main reason cubicles have evolved into such a negative symbol is because they’ve become more about cramming as many employees as possible into square footage, rather than looking after the welfare of the employees themselves. Subsequently, research discovered workers becoming increasingly unhappy and unmotivated due to the cubicles.

The cubicles were so unbearable that employees would not only produce less work and take more sick days but they were even more likely to quit. 
So, although cubicles are still present in the contemporary work space, the search for better office quarters goes on… 

Meeting the Needs of Employees Today 

When you’re asked the question, ‘what would your ideal workplace be or look like?’ Your response might be along the lines of: 
‘My bed.’

However, realistically, many people would probably choose open-plan, free roaming work spaces. Take Google, for example, their offices are filled with interactive areas where employees can relax and take a break from their work at any given moment. Table tennis, arcade games, slides, bean bag chairs, gaming consoles and even bowling alleys litter the Google offices. 
More than ever, managers are looking for office spaces to improve employee productivity. However, despite many smaller businesses being unable to afford such luxurious work places, offices like Google, Facebook and other tech-savvy industries have encouraged them to incorporate a sense of freedom and creativity within the space they have.

In the infographic below, you’ll find a brief history of how the office has evolved to meet the needs of employees, what employees are looking for in today’s workplaces, and examples of offices amongst industry leaders. For more information about office spaces, furniture, and how your office environment can benefit you, check out the Calibre Office Furniture blog page.

Productivity’s Relationship with Office Desk Space 

Everyone has their own preferred way of working. Some people thrive in a busy office, phones ringing and people running around chatting away, while others prefer sitting quietly in their own office working away with their headphones in.

Whatever your preference, having your own work space and process is incredibly important in regards to productivity.

You may not know that there are a number of psychological factors that can contribute to employee happiness and productivity. Here are the top 2: 


It’s a well-known fact that plants not only produce oxygen and add a nice aesthetic value to a room but they also boost productivity by 15%. A study from Cardiff University’s school of psychology discovered employees working in plant-filled offices reported better levels of concentration and general workplace satisfaction. 

Natural Light 

Similar to plants, natural light is incredibly important. In the same way that you may occasionally feel sleepy in the cinema or find it easier to sleep with a sleep mask, natural light can massively contribute to your productivity and general attitude within the office environment.

Araceli Camargo is a cognitive neuroscientist and the founder of TheCube stated the following: 

“If you sit an office that has poor lighting or lacks natural light, you will feel fatigued, unable to focus and your productivity will go down.” 

While light in an office will always boost productivity, Carmago further explained the importance of natural light: 

“Natural light contains what is called ‘blue light’. It boosts the immune system, increases dopamine levels and lowers cortisol levels. This means that being in a naturally-lit room will make you feel less anxious, happier and more productive.” 

Scrap the ‘Clean Desk’ Policy 

 You may have discovered that big bad management bosses constantly sing the praises of a ‘clean desk space.’ Although I personally see the logic of such management structure, it tampers with something personal to the employer; their personal space!

Let me put this another way, if your Mother or Father (hypothetical ‘management figure’) came into your room and started moving things around, demanding a tidier work space with less ‘cool stuff’ and less mess, not only might you feel annoyed but you may also feel as if the area doesn’t belong to you.

The same principle can be applied to office desk space, it’s the only area within the office that belongs solely to you. 
So, if someone comes up and starts moving your things around and generally demanding it be tidier, not only is it somewhat insulting but it removes the personal touch you’ve given it.

What’s that? I’ve left a banana on my desk for a few hours? So? Is it hampering the worth ethic of others? No? Then leave my contemporary banana art alone.

The Psychology of Office Space 

Interestingly, there have been multiple studies on the psychology behind office space. In 2005, a study discovered that granting employees an element of control over their work space increased productivity and general satisfaction.

Professor David Craig surveyed 38,000 people across multiple organisations and discovered that open offices, though favoured by employees, were more prone to distractions from other workers. Additionally, the more senior the manager (or member of staff) the larger the loss of productivity was.

Similarly, in 2011, Matt Davis, a psychologist, reviewed over 100 previous studies of office environments and discovered that while the office certainly held an image of ‘togetherness’, productivity again took a hit. 
More recently, a project in Denmark looked at the relationship between staff health in relation to office layouts. The research discovered that across 2,400 employees, as more people were hired (per office), more people became sick, increasing the sick day percentage to a startling 62% when compared to a single person office.

The Haslam and Knight Experiment 

In 2010, Alex Haslam and Craig Knight (both of the University of Exeter) carried out an experiment to determine productivity within two different office spaces.

One was in a psychology lab and the other a commercial office. The idea was to see how the environment affected everything from their productivity to their general happiness.

First up: the commercial office space and it was immediately clear that the lack of creativity and personal ‘finesse’ felt oppressive. One participant of the experiment claimed that “It just felt like a show space with nothing out of place,”  adding, “You couldn’t relax in it.” Worryingly, it raised the question of whether this oppressive, focused concept was actually intentional?

However, the second office layout with an array of decorative elements and generally more flare had a generally positive effect. Participants reported that this office layout was far easier to work in and each believed they got more work done.

The final two office layouts used the same components as the enriched office and visually, they seemed much the same. The most successful office from the two was called ‘the empowered office.’ While it offered the same array of funky additions as the enriched office – such as plants, posters and other decorations – the main difference was that the participants were given the choice to move around however they pleased.

The main difference was that the participants were given the choice to add or remove whatever they wanted, essentially given free roam of their space, even if this meant removing everything (mimicking the lean office space). The point was that they had choice.

The last and consequently most hated environment is one I can personally relate to! (No bitterness here). The experimenters – similar to before – invited the candidates to take time and care over their desk space. They arranged their belongings as they saw fit and gave them plenty of time to do so.

However, once they had finished, the experimenter returned and began rearranging their belongings until the office precisely matched the enriched setting (which, by the way, they previously enjoyed).

The scientists called this ‘the disempowered office’. Its name may have been a bit of an understatement, especially as one of the candidates, upon realising what the experimenter had done to their desk, said: “I wanted to hit you.”

Moral of this particular experiment? Don’t go changing an employee’s office area, especially if they haven’t given you permission!

What Next for the Work Environment? 

It’s sad to say, but the tidiness craze is now global. At Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (the UK’s tax collection agency), the employees were told to remove everything creative and personal from their desks in late 2006. This included family photos, artwork, plants and anything that was personal to the employee.

Similarly, at BHP Milliton, a vast mining company based in Australia, the employees were forced to adhere to the ‘clean desk’ policy which was even defined in an 11-page instruction manual!  
It read: 

“Clear desk means that at the end of each day the only items remaining will be monitor(s), keyboard, mouse, mouse pad, telephone handset and headset, one A5 photo frame and ergonomic equipment (ie footstool, gel wrist pad etc).” 

However, 5S enthusiasts at the Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle didn’t get the memo…

Every employee has a certain regime they follow every day. Whether it’s a strict regime of having a clean desk, or a somewhat relaxed approach to how they work. Either way, if they’re comfortable, then they’re happy. However, the doctors and nurses at VMMC were shocked to find that a different management system was coming in to play.

Both doctors and nurses were in the habit of hanging their stethoscopes on a hook but management insisted they now place them in a draw, titled ‘stethoscope.’ However, despite clear instructions, the medical staff simply kept hanging their stethoscopes on the wall, until a supervisor literally had to remove the hook.

Additionally, no plants were allowed, and you weren’t allowed to display an award in an A5 frame. Failure to abide by the rules would see the “Facilities Management consult with team managers about lapses.” All these anal-retentive rules are justified with circular logic: clear desk policies are useful because they will keep things tidy, “to create and maintain a workplace that is clean, organized, and professional.”

It is one thing to sharpen and straighten all the pencils on one’s own desk, metaphorically or otherwise. However, to order someone else to sharpen and straighten the pencils on their own desk is likely to infuriate the employee (as did the Haslam and Knight experiment). Why? Because it presents a twisted, materialistic regime in which pedantic and needless neatness ultimately pays the price of resentment. 

What is the Ideal Work Area? 

You can read and study as many experiments and papers as you like but ultimately, one employee’s happiness and ideal workplace will always be different to the next. In short, as long as you are flexible with your employees (in regards to the way they work around the office), their satisfaction and resulting productivity should always remain on the up. 
Or, you could buy a ping pong table and replace the stairs with a big red slide.

Always a bonus.