Friday, April 18, 2003

Nonergonomic! The Open Workroom

Nonergonomic! The Open Workroom
[人因工程 ]

Proxemics, Office Space I

Office workers spend the day in an average 260 square-foot, down from 1986's 275 square-foot, usually rectangular space. Corporate downsizing and belt-tightening mean that many staffers now find themselves working in even smaller, modular, 80-square-foot cubicles. N.B.: For some prehistoric context, consider that our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent their workdays on an estimated 440-square-mile expanse of open savannah.

Cubicles replaced the more exposed, "pool" desks which had earlier lined the floors of cavernous group-occupied workrooms. Though maligned in Dilbert cartoons, cubicles at least provide more privacy than the 1950s open workrooms, and offer needed respite from visual monitoring, which is known to be stressful to human primates. (emphasis added)

Editor's Comments:

Givens' astute observation about cubicles being better than open workrooms is correct. Scott Adams' antipathy toward cubicles is understandable. But cubicles are surely preferrable to the alternative -- the "cavernous group-occupied workrooms" of the Fifties. In case you're not sure what Givens is referring to, take a look at the interior still from Alan J. Pakula's 1976 political thriller, "All the President's Men."

"Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) talk at what appears to be The Washington Post. The Post did not allow scenes to be shot inside the newsroom, so it was reproduced on a sound stage."

By contrast, as the interior still from Mike Judge's hilariously subversive social satire "Office Space" shows, cubicles don't look nearly so bad. Notice that the "office system components," i.e., "cubicle partitions" are chest height? Chest height partitions are optimal, and provide the best of both worlds. They allow workers to enjoy a measure of visual privacy and acoustical isolation while seated, yet allow them to visually connect with and speak to each other while standing.

If one attempts to mechanically subdivide a high-ceilinged space into small rooms using floor-to-ceiling partitions, one ends up with a large number of unbearably claustrophobic rooms with the proportions of a phone booth.

One way around this problem is to use cubicle partitions that do not reach the ceiling. This space above the partition remains open to the light and air, and is shared by all. Chest height partitions allow the creation of clusters of small-footprint, semi-private spaces within the confines of a larger, non-claustrophobic expanse of high-ceilinged office space.

Cubicle partitions shorter than chest height, particularly partitions directly behind the heads and backs of seated office workers, fail to provide adequate psychological security. Employees handicapped by such work conditions may still be able to fulfill their duties, but only at diminished levels of effectiveness.

-- Bevin Chu

Explanation: Proxemics, Office Space I
Illustration(s): Washington Post Interior Film Set from "All the President's Men"
Author: David B. Givens
Affiliation: Center for Nonverbal Studies
Publication Date: 1998 - 2001
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect

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