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 fulfill [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

Desired Workspace Changes

Figure 6

Each survey participant was also asked an open-ended question regarding what he or she would change about his or her current workspace if he or she could. The qualitative responses were categorized into the following groups - privacy (n=35), interior design/technology (n=34), environmental temperature, lighting, etc. (n=25), and territoriality (n=19). See Figure 6 for the distribution of responses. Environment was divided into two groups to distinguish between the original environmental control variable and the expressed interest in interior design/furniture style/technology. Although preferences for interior design and furniture style could be considered subjective, these were left distinct from the territoriality category (e.g., personalized workspace) because interior design and furniture are often consistent throughout an office space. Representative responses included:

  • "Ability to adjust temperature without affecting others"
  • "I'm in a cubicle, people talk too much/are too loud, its very distracting!! Wish it were quieter"
  • "Modernize and simplify the decor. More natural light. Less AC. More fresh air. More communal spaces."
  • "The walls are very dark, I'd love it if they were a light or bright color."
  • "Have more privacy due to the nature of my responsibilities"
  • "While it is open and collaborative, the lack of privacy makes it difficult to focus and overall decreases my productivity"
  • "I'd like the ability to close a door to not be disturbed."
  • "I would like the ability to stand during the day. I also would like taller cube walls to block noise."
  • "Lower walls, more open collaborative environment"
  • "Get my own office. I don't like people looking at my screen when they walk by."

Notions of Flexibility

Figure 7

A second open-ended question revealed how employees define a flexible workspace. Figure 7 details the findings. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are relevant to this study. While there were a number of responses related to flexible locations (n=24) and work times (n=8), multiple workspaces (n=25), adaptable workspaces (n=22), functionality (n=20), and personalization (n=5) were aligned with the individual factors identified in this study. Representative responses included:

  • "Ability to move your space as you see fit"
  • "Ability to adjust and reconfigure workspaces..."
  • "Individual controls of seating, work surface, lighting, HVAC, and ambient noise"
  • "Where I can choose the layout of my office/workspace"
  • "To allow for use of workspace to satisfy any needs that arise"
  • "A workspace that is adjustable for each individual and/or for each task"
  • "It means that the work place was designed to flow with your work and make things faster"
  • "The ability for the workspace to accommodate the day to day needs of a worker"
  • "The freedom to be able to work privately, quietly and have silence if I need it"
  • "That, to the best of their ability, the workplace allows me to work the way it best suits my mind and body"

This indicates many individuals were aware of what workspace flexibility means in the context of this study.


The research enabled broad conclusions of how the individual factors of privacy, territoriality, and environmental controls relate to common organizational goals. However, there were most likely other circumstances also influencing the participants' responses that are peripheral to or distinct from the topic of workplace design such as stress, security, and economic stability.

Even though there were a high number of people working in traditional office spaces such as private offices (n=45) and cubicles (n=48), it was not completely clear how many people were actually working in more innovative and flexible work environments. Recruiting more people working in open team areas may have eliminated some pairings but may have also yielded other significant pairings.

Similarly, there were a high number of responses from participants in the architectural and engineering industry (n=48). It is unclear how this distribution may have impacted the study. Obtaining a more diverse sample, particularly on a global level, may have yielded different insights.

Finally, due to the constraints of this research project, this study involved a fairly low number of respondents compared to other workplace effectiveness studies. Additional time and resources as well as opportunities to perform extensive organizational surveys would have added more validity to the results. Moreover, individual interviews would have offered richer details about workplace perceptions and what contributes to the success or failure of workplace designs.

Interpretation and Recommendations

Image 5

Flexibility in the workplace can have different definitions depending upon the perspective. Organizations seek flexibility in order to increase organizational effectiveness through goals such as improved profitability, collaboration, work quality, and employee satisfaction. Individuals require flexibility to address issues of control, privacy, territoriality and environmental comfort. Both needs meet and share a space within the workplace environment. If the efforts to coordinate both parties' desires for flexibility fall short or fail, not only can the physical environment of the workplace undermine the success of strategic organizational objectives but it can also impact the individuals' feelings of belonging, security, engagement, and levels of stress. Conversely, an effectively designed workplace can support and further these objectives.

This study set out to explore which individual needs for flexibility are significant and if there were any relationships to the common organizational goals of job satisfaction, job performance, and cohesiveness. Two separate statistical tests revealed interesting findings that confirmed which individual needs are important to consider, particularly for meeting these organizational goals. Perhaps not surprising, privacy and noise level proved to be critical factors for all three organizational pairings. A somewhat unexpected finding was how essential workspace control and workspace flexibility are. To be clear, the questions related to these factors were not about the work environment in general but rather individual workspaces, and many respondents were adamant about how much they desire workspace control, adaptability, and flexibility. However, being able to personalize your workspace or feeling the need to express your individual workspace boundaries had little or no relationship. What these results reveal is a possible connection to the value of workspace appropriateness or functionality. In other words, if an employee believes that his or her workspace is appropriate for the type of work he performs and offers the privacy and level of quiet needed to perform the work, then he or she may have more positive perceptions about his or her job satisfaction, performance, and cohesiveness with others. But, since individuals and managers often assess job performance and cohesiveness differently, job satisfaction emerges as the more noteworthy outcome. Research into job satisfaction may reveal why this is quite possible.

Locke (1969) defined job satisfaction as "the pleasurable emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one's job as achieving or facilitating the achievement of one's job values" (p. 316). Herzberg et al. (1959) developed the Two Factor Theory to differentiate between the organizational factors that motivate and satisfy from those that dissatisfy and decrease performance (as cited in McElroy & Morrow, 2010). Herzberg's theory cited work conditions as a potential cause for dissatisfaction. Because it is strongly linked to motivation and performance, organizations often look to employee job satisfaction as a means of achieving other organizational goals. Thus, if organizations are looking to leverage the workplace environment to meet these desired outcomes, it would follow that employee job satisfaction could be an important determinant of the workplace design's success.

In more general terms, the results of this study show that individual flexibility is an important dimension to include in the discussion of workspace design. However, due to the broad nature of the study, it would be fair to assume there are layers of complexity as well. Responding to flexibility on an individual basis is not feasible for most organizations. Therefore, the results of this study could be used to help prioritize individual needs in terms of organizational goals.


When beginning my research, I was curious about how the workplace sends mixed messages to employees about culture and organizational identity. Many people are subjected to workplaces that fail to reflect the culture that is espoused, leading to varying degrees of mistrust and confusion about organizational goals. As I continued my research, I began to focus on the notion of flexibility and what it means. I was initially drawn to the idea of flexible work environments since it seemed to be generating significant interest as companies look for ways to succeed in a competitive but economically challenged environment. Socio-psychological research led me to understand that flexibility can mean different things to different people. In fact, I discovered that spatial considerations for individuals in the workplace had been researched extensively the last time a major transformation occurred in the workplace (i.e., when cubicles began replacing private offices). In looking at the modern workplace, organizations are starting to experiment again with what changes need to occur to satisfy both organizational goals and individual needs. With globalization comes a distributed workforce, which calls into question how much of the existing workplace is still relevant.

In continuing this research, it would be interesting to focus on how individual needs are being addressed in the more innovative and forward-thinking companies. In these situations, a specific desired culture appears to be the driving force behind these designs leading me to wonder if only those individuals capable of working within the culture are having their needs met. Or, are individual workspace needs, in general, shifting? As we become a more mobile society, the concept of territoriality could very well be evolving. It is possible that the last remnant of personalized workspace is one's own mobile devices. It is also conceivable that privacy control and the self-regulation of availability are simply reduced to being in the office, or not. Moreover, as more people are able to choose when and where they work, environmental comfort becomes increasingly more individualized. These advances suggest the new workplace strategies might be moving in the right direction. Still, considering the results of this study, organizational leaders would be wise to maintain a close watch on how to motivate their employees in more autonomous ways. David Noer (2009) describes the future organizational environment as one of transience, not permanence. This leads to the question of how organizations can effectively leverage their work environments to keep employees motivated and satisfied while maintaining loyalty and cohesiveness. For as long as organizations need people to perform the work, I surmise a "gathering space" of some kind will still be necessary to satisfy peoples' natural longing for social interaction and the feeling of being connected to others.


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