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Privacy is Office Workers’ Greatest Desire


By Roland Murphy for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

For years we’ve been bombarded with news reports – I may have even written one of two of them – about the mind shift away from enclosed work areas to free-flowing, flexible, collaborative spaces fulfilling office workers’ desire for community and holistic interaction.

That certainty has been one of, if not the, major influencers in office space design – as well as a major source of intergenerational cultural misunderstandings and friction – in recent memory.

A recent survey suggests it may be also be pretty close to dead wrong.

CRE blog COMMERCIAL Café recently published a nationwide survey of 2,107 workers in 19 different fields and spanning every age demographic. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, the majority of respondents (67 percent) were between 22 and 40, and the results are telling.

While open office space designs are less expensive to set up and foster interaction among coworkers, they are not nearly as beloved by those workers as one might believe given the hype they’ve received.

Nationwide, 42.86 of respondents across all age groups listed a private office as their ideal work environment, followed by 22.59 preferring a home office. Open plan and co-working offices only netted 9.87 and 9.44 percent, respectively.

Those numbers change hardly at all when the age group is tightened to 22-40 year olds. Private office gets 42.53 percent, home office was 22.08, and open plan and co-work space both netted 9.55.

The differences weren’t as stark here in Arizona, possibly because of our strong focus on tech culture and drive toward trendiness over the last 10 years. Here, across all ages, private offices (28.26 percent) actually finished second, behind home offices at 32.61. Open plans rated 13.04, and co-working was 10.87.

When it was just the 22-40 set, private retook the lead with 28.57 percent, though at 23.81, home offices weren’t all that far behind. Co-working spaces finished at a respectable 14.29, but, surprisingly, that was a dead-even tie with the oft-disparaged cubicle. This group of Arizonans really dislikes open space layout, however. At 4.76 percent, it tied with virtual offices (a near-constant last place finisher across all metrics) for bottom of the list.

Put a different way, the survey asked the respondents to rank to what extent a given office layout might impact their productivity. Across all age groups, the results reflected the preferred arrangements. Cubicles and open space fared worst, followed closely behind by co-working space. Private office took the least harmful spot, with home office coming in a close second. The numbers and rankings were very nearly identical when the age range was restricted to 22-40-year-old respondents.


What’s Driving the Mindset?

It’s not so much the status of a room of one’s own that’s driving the desire for the individual office or the ability to work in one’s bathrobe and PJs for the home office; it’s the fact that people actually like being able to get their work done. (Traditionally, this is something employers have been known to appreciate, too.)

The survey asked the respondents to answer yes or no to 10 factors that could impact their productivity, and fully half of those related to privacy and the inability to maintain focus due to environmental factors associated with open plans.

“Of the 2,107 respondents we surveyed, 64 percent said the most disruptive factor in the office is being constantly interrupted by coworkers, while 60 percent of respondents also picked noise as one of the most disturbing factors,” said blog author Ioana Neamt in her write-up of the survey results. “Other high-impact factors include lack of and invasion of privacy, poor lighting and air quality and outdated workstations. However, the noise level and constant interruptions are productivity’s worst enemies.”

Closing Thoughts

In that it was just a survey, albeit a large and statistically interesting one, the COMMERCIAL Café report stopped short of making recommendations.

Since I’m neither a demographer nor a design professional, I won’t take that liberty, either. As an editor and reporter who covers this field, however, I will offer a few closing thoughts.

The number of respondents who were 21 and younger was statistically insignificant at only 0.71 percent; however, their responses were interesting. Nearly half (46.67 percent) listed home office as their preference, followed by private office (33.33), creative space (13.33) and co-working (6.67). The next age range was 22-40, and I’m inclined to think that 18-year grouping might have been too expansive.

Also, even if everyone in the world preferred a private office, that ship has long since sailed. It’s the most expensive configuration to build. It takes up the most area. Construction and rent costs/SF have continued to rise. Space-per-office worker, according to the New York Times, has dropped from 225SF in 2010 to 176 in 2012. More than 30 percent of this survey’s respondents said they have fewer than 100SF of personal workspace in their offices.

Even if a private office would let everyone double their productivity and workplace satisfaction, those increases wouldn’t be enough to justify the increased costs.

There are, however, two things that might be cause for optimism. First is that set of home office data. If the gig/freelance/independent contractor trend keeps accelerating as has also been widely reported – up from 9.3 percent in 1995 to 15.8 percent in 2015, according to Business News Daily – more and more people will be moving into that idealized home office environment.

Second, and perhaps this says more about the adaptability (if you’re an optimist) or resignation to dissatisfaction (if you’re not) of the current American office-based workforce that anything else: Respondents were asked, “How likely are you to quit your job because of your current office layout?” The rankings were 1-4, with 1 being, “Definitely won’t,” and 4 being, “Definitely will.”

The final number was 1.44. Workers may be dissatisfied. They may long for space and privacy. They may yearn for quiet and the ability to focus without having to hear about their coworker’s weekend plans or the hubbub of people racing around on deadline, but they’re not inclined to take their talents elsewhere to make that happen.


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