Design Won’t Save American Workers

Photo: Gerhard Joren/LightRocket via Getty Images

If you work in an office, do you like its layout? Do you feel it helps or hinders your ability to get stuff done? Has your employer tried to change things around to boost productivity or happiness? Were there, at any point, beanbag chairs involved?

These are hot subjects these days. The intersection of design and psychology is getting a lot of love at the moment, and has brought with it a lot of opinions — and trends — regarding how offices should be laid out. It’s also shined a spotlight on problems that might not have gotten much attention previously. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, for example, Sue Shellenbarger notes that “visual noise, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision, can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity, research shows. While employers have long tried to quiet disruptive sounds in open workspaces, some are now combating visual noise too.” She then reports on some of those efforts, noting that “A loss of visual privacy is the No. 2 complaint from employees in offices with low or no partitions between desks, after noise, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology of 42,764 workers in 303 U.S. office buildings.”

If visual noise is a problem now, it might be because everyone has been touting the benefits of more open, ostensibly collaboration-promoting workplaces for years, now — think the big, airy, glassy spaces stereotypically associated with Silicon Valley start-ups. Shellenbarger doesn’t make this connection, but it’s probably important.

It’s true that there’s some research showing that certain design choices can improve or hinder performance or happiness, of course. It’s also true that in many cases this research is overstated — what’s true for a 20-minute session in a lab might not be true for a 20-year-career in an office, or for people who simply have different work styles — and that a whole cottage industry of design-consultant types has popped up to peddle their office-reforming wares, often by drawing (sometimes too loosely) on the language of psychology. Yesterday, open offices are the way to go, according to behavioral science. Today, open-office layouts bring important new challenges that must be addressed, according to behavioral science.

If you dive headfirst into the trend, you find yourself in a world where we’re always just one innovation away from happy, productive employees. Take the article’s headline and subheadline (which Shellenbarger likely didn’t choose): “Why You Can’t Concentrate at Work: The problem is visual noise; companies get creative dialing down distractions that pull eyes away from desks, an unforeseen consequence of open-plan workspaces.”

But think about what it’s like to work in an office. Yes, there may be features that annoy you, or that you feel are preventing you from putting in your best work, but overall humans get habituated to their visual environments quite quickly. These conversations often nudge out talk of the big drivers of unproductivity and unhappiness and bad work in general — the fact that the U.S. has rampant levels of overwork, that so many employees are a missed paycheck or two away from serious trouble, and that wages have been really stagnant. Workers are treated really poorly here relative to the rest of the rich, developed world.

That doesn’t mean design isn’t an interesting and potentially important subject, of course. It just means we should always be careful to put these questions in their proper context, and not expect this or that design choice to be the difference between a happy, productive office and the office from Office Space.

Design Won’t Save American Workers