Chasing the Positive Work Environment: What Helps and Hinders the Dream?

Everyone wants that myth, that utopia, that perfect work environment that helps us maximize our work performance while minimizing stress. While we’re never going to achieve office perfection, here are some areas that contribute to — or detract from — that Office Zen that we’re constantly seeking.

All this is keeping in mind that what defines a positive work environment can differ from person to person — even between co-workers or management at the same company. Everyone can agree on this definition, though: a positive work environment is whatever helps you get your stuff done while keeping you sane.

Ergonomics

It should go without saying, but a good office chair, a good keyboard, a good desk and frequent stand-up and walking breaks all help you get through a work day. Humans weren’t meant to sit for long periods, so while you’re sitting, take any opportunity to reduce the chance of blood clots, fatigue and carpal tunnel. Some office workers have even resorted to standing desks to minimize all of the above. Whatever your approach, comfort and lack of pain is the goal here. Nothing makes you get sick of a job more than when it’s physically painful to perform it. Forbes talks about the many benefits of standing desks, and even delves into the claim that standing desks lead to a longer life.

Office Layouts

Depending on the type of office job you’ve got, you may find that specific office layouts and proximity to co-workers can help you or harm you productivity-wise.

Cubes

Ah, the stereotypical cube farm. They’re everywhere, especially in larger companies. Although cubes can make you feel like a rat in a maze, sometimes they really are the best approach. Programmers, testers and graphics artists, for example, need quiet and semi-isolation for long, uninterrupted periods of time. Short of giving each code monkey his or her own office, this is the best way for them to get their work done. Any collaboration can be done electronically through apps like BaseCamp or bug tracking software like Bugzilla. And if you actually have to talk to another human being as part of your job, it can still be done.

Individual Offices

There are jobs where everyone has their own offices. Perhaps management is all domestic, and everyone they manage is outsourced. Perhaps the office space is nice, and the company just isn’t that large, or doesn’t need to be. Often a hybrid approach will be taken here, where the offices are glass and the doors are open. Sharing is encouraged, but only on the office inhabitant’s terms.

Collaborative

Also known as the open office plan, this is where there are a series of desks connected to each other in a big open space, and everyone can see everyone. Frequent face-to-face collaboration happens often and is encouraged, as the company’s work demands a team approach. But headphones can be deployed or adjoining tiny offices can be used if someone needs to plug in for long periods.

These types of approaches work if you’re the type of person who can still get work done while there’s talking next to your ear, or if you’re cool with frequent interruptions. If you thrive on impromptu team meetings, volleys of questions and answers and true team-building, this approach is for you. It’s definitely not for everyone.

This article on Mashable is a pretty strong indictment against the open floor plan. For the other viewpoint, Financial Times talks about a Swedish approach to work environment.

Meeting Frequency and Duration

The rule of thumb here is that the more corporate a work environment, the more meetings there are and the less useful each meeting becomes. Meetings become time sinks where people talk about nothing, the type that ruin any chance of getting that day’s project done. It doesn’t have to be so. Positive work environments are ones where meetings are done for a purpose — usually, making sure everyone’s on the same page and that management and clients are happy. Once everyone has their footing, there’s no need to take up hours of time, hours that can be spent Doing the Work.

Ideally, if a meeting is only marginally applicable to that person, it can either be optional, or the worker can listen to it remotely while working on other stuff. Meetings are a necessary evil, but they don’t have to be an ever-present one. Fast Company talks about ways to keep being productive when the meetings monopolize your time.

Micromanagement

Are you the type of manager who likes to stand behind a worker and offer helpful advice as they work, or watch as they go through the process? Are you a constant shadow from cube to cube, making sure people stay on task, stay off phones and are kept in the loop about those TPS reports? Stop that. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is universally bad and detracts from a positive work environment. Let the office workers be in the driver’s seat regarding when and how they like to interact with management. This Inc article tells us about new research that shows how detrimental micromanaging can be on productivity.

For the most part, the average worker just wants to get his or her work done without Big Brother or Big Sister watching over them. That means that employing Internet filters, web tracking applications and so on are not necessarily good things, though depending on the size of the company and the sensitivity of corporate secrets, these steps may be mandatory. But if you’d rather your workers not despise you and the company, turn them loose and see if they fly on their own. Odds are, they will.

Conflict

Finally, a positive work environment can be about how an office collectively handles conflict. Is yours the type of office where an employee can feel comfortable coming to HR or management about a co-worker who’s acting unruly at best and at worst is harassing that employee? Good — there should always been an avenue to report these things without fear of reprisal.

If the conflict is strictly business and not personal, the best office environments are ones where conflicts can be worked out maturely and the work — and the workers — can come out the other side stronger for the experience. Often, these types of issues boil down to miscommunication, and streamlining this conflict can ensure that the next one between the same people doesn’t happen. This Harvard article backs up this viewpoint: the best leaders resolve, rather than avoid conflict.

Time Management

Americans have this funny idea that forty hours a week is a bare minimum, and fifty to seventy or more is the norm, depending on the field of work and how close to product launch the company is. Europeans get the same amount of work done and don’t have to put in that kind of time. We’re workaholics — but we also waste a lot of time unnecessarily. Having an awesome project manager — and awesome project management software — can ensure that time is used more efficiently, workers don’t have to put in insane hours — and weekends — and everyone goes home happy.

It’s what we call work-life balance. As you move on in your career, more and more of your co-workers will have spouses, children, lives. Work is important, but life outside of work is equally so. The best office environments are ones that give generous time away from that office. It’s like that old relationship analogy: sure, your significant other is great, but it doesn’t mean you want to see him or her all the time. That’s the seed from which resentment grows.

And finally…

All of the above can be points for or against a smooth, easygoing work day that is both lightning fast and thunderously productive. The kind of work environment you find yourself in can be as important as the career itself. Change what you can, and when you can’t change aspects of your environment, make suggestions to those who can. Odds are, you won’t get everything you want, but you should, hopefully, get to a point where you’re comfortable, productive and happy. Good luck!