Workspace Flexibility: How Individual Workspace Needs Relate to Organizational Goals

Workspace Flexibility: How Individual Workspace Needs Relate to Organizational Goals

Picture by: Robin Bellerby

Article and Author Information

Robin Bellerby wrote this article in December 2012 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary assignment is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Robin graduated from the MSLOC program in 2013. She is an experienced architect and the owner of create+lead+solve where she provides organizational consulting for the design and construction industry.

Twitter: @RobinBellerby


Many organizations are turning to flexible work environments to cost-effectively address changes in technology and work processes. In so doing, workplace flexibility is often tied to organizational goals such as increased profitability, quality, and performance. This study explored the notion of flexibility from the individual's perspective to determine if individual needs for flexibility relate to common organizational goals. Existing research defines several individual factors that are associated with the concept of flexibility, including privacy, territoriality, and environmental comfort. Based upon the results of an online survey of 170 participants, this study revealed a number of significant relationships between flexibility and common organizational goals, which organizational leaders should consider when planning a flexible work environment.

Introduction and Methodology

A major workplace transformation occurred when companies began shifting from enclosed offices to cubicles in the 1970s and 1980s (McElroy & Morrow, 2010). Not surprisingly, most employees expressed negative reactions about the open plan concept after spending years in enclosed, private offices (Fischer, Tarquinio, & Vischer, 2004; McElroy & Morrow, 2010; Vischer, 2008; Zalesny & Farace, 1987). Since cost was often the driving factor for the transition, cubicles continued to be installed throughout offices across the United States and around the world.

The past decade has seen new technologies challenge traditional workplace design. Work has transitioned from mostly clerical or repetitive activities to more knowledge-based work that continues to evolve with new technological innovations (McElroy & Morrow, 2010), requiring "multidisciplinary and cross-functional collaboration" (Hua, Loftness, Kraut, & Powell, 2010, p. 431). Because of these changes, the cubicle is often considered what the enclosed office once was, and managers increasingly want to eliminate the partitions in favor of even more open environments. While the cubicle was originally deemed a flexible office component that was much easier to reconfigure than the full-height walls of private offices, cubicles today are now viewed as limiting collaboration and teamwork. Many companies are moving towards even more flexible workspace environments that include features such as collaboration spaces, cluster or pod arrangements, movable furniture, and shared desks. Like before, financial constraints often drive this decision, but managers also believe these increasingly open and flexible environments enhance productivity and improve communication. More importantly, the flexible components allow a company to quickly and economically reconfigure spatial arrangements in response to constantly changing organizational conditions (Chan, Beckman, & Lawrence, 2007).

Even as these flexible workplace changes are implemented, The New York Times (Tierney, 2012) recently reported the use of headphones is becoming the "new cubicle" in an attempt for individuals to regain some control over their environments. "More recent studies have found that although office workers value contact and communication, they still resist open plan workspaces" (Penn, Desyllas, & Vaughn, 1999; Horgen, Joroff, & Schon, 1999 as cited in Fischer et al., 2004, p. 132). Employees cite distractions and interruptions as more important than any other factor (Fischer et al., 2004). Therefore, a struggle continues between what managers believe will result in positive work outcomes and what individuals feel is important to their work process.

The purpose of this research was to explore the notion of flexibility, from the individual's perspective, to identify the individual needs that are most significant to workspace design and to determine if there is a relationship to broader organizational goals. When organizational leaders appreciate flexibility from the individual's viewpoint, they are better aware of how to design the workplace to address these needs while meeting the organization's overall strategic objectives. Therefore, this research is expected to benefit members of organizations, and their consultants, who are directly involved with the design of workplace changes as well as managers who must communicate these changes to the workforce.

Individual Needs for Flexibility

Existing research indicates several individual factors related to the notion of flexibility that funnel through a higher need for individual control.

Image 1

Individual Control. Evans and McCoy (1998) defined control "as mastery or the ability to either alter the physical environment or regulate exposure to one's surroundings" (p. 86). Elements of control are "physical constraints, flexibility, responsiveness, privacy, spatial syntax, defensible space, and certain symbolic elements" (Evans & McCoy, 1998, p. 86). Allen and Greenberger (1980) argued "an individual can experience an increase in the sense of control by altering, modifying, or transforming" (as cited in Lee & Brand, 2005, p. 325) his workspace. Sommer and Augustin (2007) added that there are few decisions that individual employees can make about their workspace. Given any task, control over one's environment would involve having the flexibility to position oneself in the most appropriate and advantageous orientation.

Privacy. "Privacy is a central regulatory process by which a person...makes himself more or less accessible and open to others..." (Altman, 1975, p. 3). "Altman (1975) proposed that not achieving the desired level of privacy will result in discomfort and stress..." (Oseland, 2009, p. 247). Returning to the need for control, flexibility can provide the ability for an individual to shift between private, solitary moments and times of greater social interaction. Evans and McCoy (1998) termed the various degrees of privacy a spatial hierarchy, which comprises "the provision of spaces ranging from places that provide solitude and those that foster contact with the public" (p. 89). The freedom to regulate this spatial hierarchy is a way for an individual to maintain a sense of control over their work environment.

Territoriality. Territoriality is evidenced in the workplace primarily through the symbolic display of personal artifacts and using objects (e.g., filing cabinets and plants) as physical boundaries (Oseland, 2009). It becomes representative of the sense of ownership an individual develops of his workspace (Vischer, 2008). Elsbach and Bechky (2007) warn, "...individuals who lose the ability to personalize their office space (e.g., if they are moved to a non-territorial office space) report feeling that their individual distinctiveness is more threatened than their status" (p. 86). Vischer (2008) suggests that "territory is not simply made up of the walls and doors that enclose space; territoriality at work is also affected by sense of privacy, social status and perception of control" (p. 101). Therefore, territoriality operates in tandem with privacy as a boundary-regulating function (Stokols, 1978) to reinforce individual feelings of control.

Environmental Control. Maslow (1943) described two lower level basic needs of physiological and safety that must be fulfilled before higher level needs of love, esteem and self-actualization can be met. While hunger and shelter are the most obvious physiological needs, temperature and lighting can also affect an individual's physiological comfort. "One interpretation of Maslow is that if we do not provide comfortable environments that fulfil [sic] base human needs then, regardless of rewards, the building occupants are unlikely to be at their most productive" (Oseland, 2009, p. 245). Similarly, Vischer (2008) defines the concept of functional comfort "as environmental support for users' performance of work-related tasks and activities" (p. 100). "Where workers have to struggle to perform their tasks because the built environment is problematic, their situation can be characterized as stressful" (Vischer, 2008, p. 105).

Common Organizational Goals

Often leaders focus on organizational goals related to increased efficiency, profitability, and quality of work. Accordingly, many workplace design changes are intended to address these strategic and operational goals. However, there are also common organizational goals related to individual employees such as job satisfaction, job performance, and cohesiveness with others. Both sides meet within the organizational context, which "includes corporate goals and objectives, organizational activities, organizational culture, and employee relations" (Fischer et al., 2004, p. 132). It is within the organizational context where meeting these individual-level goals likely influences the ability to achieve higher-level goals. Thus, meeting individual needs for flexibility in the workplace may prove critical in achieving a variety of goals.

Research Methods

Sample Selection. In order to study the effects of individual needs for flexibility on common organizational goals, 210 people were recruited for the study through social media tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, and email. Of those, 170 people qualified by currently working in an office environment and completing all of the non-demographic survey questions. The survey participants were employed in various industries and in a variety of workspace types. The majority of respondents were female (64.3%). Figures 1-4 illustrate the demographic data.

Figure 1-4

Procedure. Participants were asked to complete a cross-sectional survey in the form of a self-administered online questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to take approximately 15 minutes to complete. The goal of the survey was to draw broad conclusions on the relationship of individual needs for flexibility to common organizational goals. The sole qualifying factor was that the participant must be currently employed in an office environment designed for professional, managerial, or administrative work and that is provided and maintained by their employers. This intentionally excluded those working from home or other alternate locations since this study was focused on workplace design within an organizational context.

Analysis and Results

Individual and Organizational Goal Variables

The survey instrument consisted of 19 closed-ended questions and two open-ended questions. All but three of the variables tested were scaled on a 7-point Likert scale. The remaining three questions were scaled on a 4-point Likert scale. Table 1 lists the individual and organizational goal variables that were tested. Personality type (e.g., extrovert/introvert) was the only individual variable that did not appear to have a significant relationship to any organizational goal and has been deleted from the analysis. In order to reduce the number of individual-organizational goal pairings, reliability tests were performed for each group of questions related to specific factors. Table 2 lists the factors that were assessed collectively along with their reliability test scores. Categories with reliability test scores equal to or greater than 0.700 were assessed collectively.

Testing of Quantitative Data

Image 2

In order to assess the relationships, each individual variable was paired with an organizational goal variable. After finding that the data did not have a normal bell-curve distribution pattern, a Mann-Whitney test was used to determine if there were differences in organizational goal variables between each individual variable. The individual variable responses, identified as the independent variables, were reduced to two categories (e.g., agree/disagree). The organizational goals, identified as the dependent variables, were left in the original 7-point scale.

The results revealed a number of pairings with statistically significant differences (p < .01) indicating strong relationships between certain individual needs and organizational goals.

Image 3

To illustrate, the first column in Figure 5 compares the median responses for job satisfaction between those who felt they had privacy and those who did not. The Mann-Whitney test results suggest a significant difference in job satisfaction scores between those who agreed they had privacy (Mean = 5.59) and those who disagreed (Mean = 4.19).

Figure 5

In addition, a Pearson correlation test was conducted on the same individual-organizational goal pairings to better understand the relationships. In this case, all variables were tested in the original 7-point continuous scale to maintain the robust quality of the data. These tests indicated statistically significant linear relationships within many of the same individual-organizational pairings as the Mann-Whitney tests. For example, as the perception of privacy increased, so did job satisfaction.

Image 4

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