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Open or Closed: Office Space Design Contributes to the Library Experience

No matter how well we design the library experience, it will never meet expectations if staff members lack the enthusiasm or appropriate level of engagement needed to deliver the experience as intended. To a large extent it depends on staff morale, job satisfaction and the work environment. Perhaps the best organizational example of the value of committed staff to the success of the experience is Southwest Airlines.

Southwest customers who can compare their experience with that of any other airline will surely conclude that the Southwest experience begins with staff who are motivated and empowered to deliver a great experience. Southwest’s leadership, much more than its competitors, is committed to building a culture that requires a satisfied, high morale workforce to achieve success. While multiple factors contribute to workplace satisfaction, the design of office space plays a considerably important role.

Just how that office space is configured is currently the subject of great debate. One only needs to spend some time with Dilbert to see how the design of the cubicle culture is mocked as a contributor to workplace dissatisfaction. Lately, the idea of the open office, whether it’s people at cubicles, long tables or some other sort of non-private office arrangement, is taking a beating. A post at the HBR Blog Network put it bluntly with the headline “Cubicles Are the Worst”.

Jason Feifer, writing at Fast Company, claims that the open office is a failed concept that crushes workers’ souls. A host of writers are citing a new research study that cites noise and lack of privacy in open offices as a key contributing factor to worker dissatisfaction. One of them, Oliver Burkeman blogs that open offices are simply a cheap way (yes – open offices are considerably less expensive to build than private ones) to cram more people into less space. Anjali Mullany, on the other hand, believes that with the right design elements, open offices can deliver on all the promised benefits of the concept. For example, Mullany mentions a design factor known as the “library effect” which suggests that when walls between workers are lowered it contributes to a quieter space as co-workers are less likely to be noisy when they know the behavior is observed by their office mates. Rather than condemning open offices, perhaps we need to learn more about the design features that contribute to their success and then eliminate what leads them to fail.

So who and what are we supposed to believe about open office space? I’ve been to both libraries and non-libraries that are using open office arrangements, and the impression I got is that the workers are satisfied and do believe the arrangement contributes to a more successful organization and user experience. Last year I visited the Manhattan headquarters of Seamless, a web-based food service, and General Assembly, a start-up incubator. Both use completely open plans – no cubicles at all. Everyone works in an open shared space. At Seamless even the top executives work at the same open tables as everyone else. There are abundant spaces for privacy when it’s needed and small group collaboration. At the General Assembly, it’s more than just co-workers connecting with each other. Different start-ups work along side each other. These are both thriving enterprises, so while there may be naysayers within, to the outside observer the open office arrangement appears a success.

photo of the office space at Hunt Library

View of the open office space at Hunt Library

At libraries I visited that had either renovated or built new space, open offices were in evidence – although department heads still had private offices. The business librarians at Purdue say they benefit from working in the same space, and they have quick access to consultation or private space when needed. At the new Hunt Library at North Carolina State University and the soon-to-open new library at Liberty University, the majority of staff work in open office arrangements. At Hunt, cubicles are the standard but the employee space features a large area adjacent to the open office where there are a variety of private and semi-private areas, and a range of different types of furniture, such as a pod chair. I observed staff working and collaborating in both areas. I had no opportunity to ask them how they felt about the open office arrangement.

photo of hunt library office space

A short hallway connects the open office at Hunt Library to the “Collaboration Hub” staff space.

The debate about the power and pitfalls of open office space is likely to continue, with stories and research supporting both sides of the argument. Martin Pedersen, writing at Metropolis, perhaps sums it up best when he says:

The truth is, architecture can’t keep up with the changes in the workplace. The whole idea of The Office is under assault—by tools that allow us to work anywhere, smart machines that threaten to make us “redundant,” and, lurking in the shadows, a perpetually squeezed economy. It’s no surprise that a lot of design responses, like the open-plan office itself, are best guesses, driven in part by real estate expediencies.

Photo of Hunt Library Office Space

Multiple furniture types and configurations are found in Hunt’s Collaboration Hub.

It is ultimately up to those of us who work together to decide what space not only works best for us, but what configuration will create the right environment to support our efforts to deliver the type of experience that compels our community members to come to the library. Noise and privacy issues are a challenge. I have a private office. It’s a pleasure to shut the door when there’s excessive noise from elsewhere. My office can also be isolating and I suspect it leads to less awareness and opportunities for engagement with my colleagues. I have every reason to believe those noise, privacy issues and the occasional need we all have for consultation/meeting space can be overcome through well-designed spaces and furnishings.

As the physical library experience increasingly becomes about our space and how it is designed to offer a blending of private, collaborative, quiet and noise-tolerant options, we should be thinking of creating the same type of workplace experience for ourselves. The open office spaces I have observed may well offer just such an opportunity.

Note: Featured photos taken by s. bell and posted with permission of NCSU’s Hunt Library

Comments

Comment from Laura K
Posted: December 10, 2013 at 7:27 pm

I’ve worked in plenty of cubicles, and also in places where I had a private office, and I can say I infinitely prefer to have a private office. There may be many benefits to open office space, but as long as “upper management” still have private offices, workers will never believe that open offices are a beneficial thing. And if you do have cubicles/open offices, there have to be adequate spaces for private conversations. My last workplace had a severe shortage of private spaces and it was a real hardship.

Comment from Susan Ariew
Posted: December 11, 2013 at 8:40 pm

If you want academic librarians to do research and publish, you need to give them their own spaces to do so. I would find open offices a distraction when trying to do sustained work, particularly writing and research.

Comment from StevenB
Posted: December 12, 2013 at 2:37 am

Perhaps some do. I know of faculty who worked in shared offices who were productive researchers and got published. There are plenty of grad students in the sciences who work in labs and they don’t have private offices, but they get published. Even if one happens to need privacy for thinking and writing (and who wouldn’t be doing some of this work at home – after work), open office configurations should offer access to temporary private space for when it’s needed.

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