Whether we like it or not – and most of us apparently don’t – the place where we work has become as big an influence on our lives as our own homes.
The amount of time we spend there is enough in itself to have a significant impact on our lives. But how we feel, act, think and often our physical, mental and emotional well-being are all shaped by our working environment to an extent where it also creeps into our “quality” time.
Chatting to a former colleague who has also recently moved out of a newsroom and into a more traditional office environment provided a few interesting observations. We focused mainly on the fact that I’m now more mobile in my career than ever before, either working from home, the offices of a particular client or just about anywhere wi-fi is available, compared to how she is now “stuck in a boring office”.
It undoubtedly adds to the numerous other benefits of being your own boss and not being tied to a particular base. These days, with lap-tops, mobile phones and wi-fi connections, I can conceivably work just about anywhere at any time. That raises the issue of work-life balance, but I have never had a problem with “switching off” from work and that is why I enjoy working from home – I know I can spend an hour writing an article and the other 23 relaxing and forgetting all about that rather distasteful four-letter word.
Having spent most of my career in the uniquely chaotic environment of your average newsroom, venturing into more conventional offices for the odd day or two has provided a steep learning curve. I am still attempting to come to terms with the quietness and pace of the open-plan offices of one regular client. It is a busy office, a lot gets done, but the lack of noise and comparative lack of frenetic activity still remains something of an oddity to me and perversely can be very distracting.
Sit me at a desk in the ticket hall of New Street train station or the departure lounge of Birmingham International Airport and I can happily work for hours without interuption. My wife can vouch for the fact that we can be sitting in our living room, with the radio playing, the cat going mental and her chatting happily away and I can (most of the time) carry on holding a conversation, fussing the cat and finish a 1,000-word article within half-an-hour while humming to whatever song is playing.
But when I find myself in a carefully designed office, sympathetically laid out to ensure maximum pleasure and productivity for those working there, I can struggle to remain focused on the task in hand.
The office my former colleague now calls “home” is a prime example of that old adage “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” and symbolises a lot of what is wrong with the modern office. I am reliably informed that the newly refurbished offices are a million miles away from their previous incarnation.
Large picture windows with unobstructed views from any point in the office have replaced the dirt and grime-smeared panes, covered by heavy blinds and often obscured by partition walls. This ensures the offices are now flooded with natural light, making the use of the strip lighting unnecessary during the majority of the day. The former grease-pit of a kitchenette where battles royal were fought over the tea and coffee-making provisions has long gone. Instead there are three small but comfortable lounge areas, together with plentiful, shared supplies of all the necessary equipment and ingredients for hot and cold drinks.
Large, healthy looking plants are liberally littered around the room, which feels bigger because they lifted the ceiling height a foot or two. An area of “scrub” outside the windows has also been landscaped with benches and there is now access into the new-look courtyard garden.
An awful lot of time, thinking and money has clearly gone into these new-look offices. And yet, there are grumbles aplenty from those who inhabit them day in and day out and who often recall the drab old dungeon they used to work in with fondness.
The large picture windows, for example, make the offices feel too stuffy when it is warm and sunny and too cold when it is cloudy and miserable – the office air-conditioning, like most office air-conditioning, invariably pumps out warmth in the summer and frostiness in the winter. Chatter from the lounge areas can disturb those at their desks. The plants provide a frustrating obstacle course for the trolleys delivering the daily post or office supplies and they bump into desks. This list goes on…and on.
There is general agreement that the courtyard is a welcome addition, so at least all that time, thinking and money hasn’t been entirely wasted.
You may well roll your eyes knowingly at such a familiar experience, but this particular office has seen a rise in sickness levels and absenteeism since the refurbishment. Dark mutterings of “sick building syndrome” have now started to be heard. There is much scratching of heads at management level about what they should do to tackle the complaints and remedy the sickness problem.
A return to the bad old days is out of the question. And yet, it is clear, being forced to endure a fairly dramatic change of environment and no longer being able to cocoon themselves in their own little cubicle is having a detrimental effect on some in that office. Open-plan has not been welcomed with open arms. People feel they are being constantly scrutinised because the floor-to-ceiling partition walls have been replaced by little “pods” with chest-high dividers. People can see their co-workers all day, every day and they loathe every second of it.
They insist they are one big, happy team, of course, and yet there is consternation and resentment that they can no longer shut themselves away from the rest of them. Communication amongst the team in their new accessible, open-plan offices has gone down dramatically. Stress levels, poor morale and job disatisfaction have gone up steeply.
It is my former colleague’s unenviable job to find a solution. It is a task she doesn’t relish, but is throwing herself into with customary gusto – the emailed plea for advice from friends and former workmates that prompted our original conversation and this article being her first step to finding a solution.
She is canavassing opinion on what makes a “good office” and experiences on the negative impacts a place of work can have on people.
Although I’m no longer tied (a negative term, but one used so frequently by so many) to one desk or office, I have passed on quite a few observations. These days I find myself in all manner of work spaces and offices, with the very occasional fix to satisfy my newsroom cravings. No two offices look the same and they all have a unique “feel” about them. But there are common features.
We endure a love-hate relationship with the place we call “work”. As my former colleague put it: “I hated everything about the newsroom when I was working there, but I miss it so much now I don’t have to go in five days a week.”
To their credit, many companies and organisation do try hard to create the most pleasing and productive working environment possible. But it is not enough, it will never be enough.
The key to any office environment – whether positive or negative – is the people who work there. You can find yourself in the type of aforementioned dingy dungeon and yet love your work and be a happy, healthy, productive, efficient and friendly team. Or you can work in an office that meets all HR, feng shui and designer chic requirements, yet which feels more like a prison cell, impacts badly on your physical and mental well-being, hampers productivity and prevents any kind of team-work from taking place.
The office does not represent an exact science. It is a nuisance that makes us feel depressed one minute, but can also lift our mood and feel the safest and happiest place to be the next.
It is now such a significant part of our day-to-day existence that many of us feel that work shapes who we are much more than what we do in our lives outside of the office. This has to constitute a negative impact on us, no matter how genuinely we enjoy what we do for a job.
There has to be more to life than working. A familiar, plaintiff cry, perhaps, but it hides a multitude of unanswered questions and baffling contradictions. It can also mask very serious health issues, either physical or more likely mental.
All of which my former colleague is now discovering in her quest to solve her own office conundrum.
I did some surfing on her behalf, looking for some inspiration and information. That is why I came across this new campaign – Building Solutions – from the mental health charity Mind (www.mind.org.uk).
Take the time to have a read, do the quick survey about your own office environment and experiences and discover some recommendations. Much of it will seem familiar, but may not have been said out loud before.
The aim of Building Solutions, according to Mind, is to “raise the profile of the importance of the built environment” on our mental health and make sure that offices and other places of work “reflect the positive way we want to feel about ourselves”.
Another excellent campaign from an excellent organisation. Food for thought for anyone who dreads waking up and heading to work each morning and more importantly plenty of advice and a few possible answers.
It also constitutes a wake-up call to every company and organisation in the country that provides work spaces of any description. Their obligation does not begin and end with providing a desk, chair, telephone and computer, or whatever other “tools” of that particular trade are required.
There is a lot to recommend about being free of the traditional office. But, deep down, I would rather feel like I was missing out on something good.