Dream Office: Is your office doing your head in?

Dream Office: Is your office doing your head in?

If you are feeling afraid of losing a claim on your desk as your company moves to hot-desking, if your neighbour is too noisy or your boss looking over your shoulder at everything you do, you might need a consultation with Keti Malkoski.

Malkoski is one of a rare breed – an organisational psychologist who specialises in the impact of our work environment on our feelings and behaviour. She is employed by family company Schiavello, the biggest commercial furniture maker in our wide brown land, which also has a thriving office fit-out division. As Malkoski says succinctly on her Twitter account: “I research the interaction between employees/teams and the physical workplace.”

Malkoski and architects in general will tell you that measuring the impact of our workplaces on our productivity is notoriously difficult. Simone Gourlay, a senior interior designer with architects, Hayball, says: “This is a well-studied area, but the difficult is to really pinpoint what to measure. There have been no real definitive studies that say we have measured x y and z, and if you redesign your workplace, you will increase productivity by X percent. When you do ‘post-occupancy surveys’ [after a new office fit-out] there is huge spike in productivity because it is new and exciting but that does taper off over time as people get back into their normal habits.”

On the other hand, there is a growing body of data that suggest we are more productive if we are happy. So if psychologists such as Malkoski can establish the link between our mental state and our office environment, we will have arrived at the destination of determining the productivity benefit of good office design by another route.

Malkoski works from time to time with Jacqueline Vischer, an “environmental psychologist” (a term not recognised in Australia) at the University of Montreal, who has made one of the few attempts to study how people are affected by their work environment.

Vischer proposes that we look at issues such as satisfaction (do we like our furniture or lighting), territoriality and belonging, and productivity. Those are measure that are close to Malkoski’s heart and her practice (even if they elude precise measurement).

Malkoski spends her days with leaders. The task of an office re-design can prove remarkably difficult as staff struggle to see the benefit of making changes.

Typically, Malkoski helps leaders and their staff change attitudes and behaviours. Managers can be worried about having a workforce that is moving from space to space, making it harder to oversee what they are doing. Staff may struggle with not having a desk and space to call their own, for example.

“Activity-based workplaces” (ABW) are all the rage, as mentioned in my earlier story in LeadingCompany’s dream office series, Why we hate the open plan office. The idea is that staff shift into different spaces according to the tasks they are doing: collaborating with others in meeting spaces, or focusing intently in a private space, for example.

Malkoski says for the past 18 months, working with clients to introduce ABW is taking up most of her time.

When asked for her own “nightmare office” experience, Malkoski offers an appalling image of open-plan gone wrong: row after row of cubicles where she was required to lock her laptop whenever she left her desk in case it was stolen. “It made me feel like I wasn’t valued,” she recalls.

But Malkoski says ABW can work extremely well. She passes tips about best ABW practice to Schiavello’s paying clients, and tweets and blogs about them regularly. Recently, she bravely tackled the issue of “clean desk policies” and the question of how many rules is too many. BHP Billiton last year was lampooned across the nation when HR unveiled an 11-page edict about staff behaviour in its new Perth headquarters – from how many objects (8) they were allowed on their desks, to not being allowed to eat meals there – but able to sip cold soup, and so on.

The lesson, Malkoski says, is to set up a few rules pertaining to health and safety and courtesy and allow teams to decide if they want to add to them. “Does it matter if one team member sits in the same desk every day, or eats at their desk? It is up to the team to decide,” she suggests.

Malkoski works in a team with a workplace planner, who designs the layout of the furniture, and a corporate sustainability principal, who considers how to make workplaces healthier and more eco-friendly.

Her role is not so different from architects and interior designers, who are familiar with the psychological challenges of changing our workplaces.

But it is good – and remarkable – to find there is someone who spends their time researching how we feel and behave as a result of the way of office is designed. 

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