Engineering Success through Smart Design
Academy of Management Annals, 2008

Work space design can make or break a company’s productivity, either inspiring innovation and collaboration or stifling employees’ ability to work smarter. Thirty years ago conventional wisdom held that to create an environment that promoted efficiency and comfort, work spaces needed to be neat and tidy with no personal items cluttering desktops.

In their article “The Physical Environment in Organizations” published in the Academy of Management Annals (2008), Professor Kimberly Elsbach and her co-author Professor Michael G. Pratt of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, surveyed the past three decades of research on office design and its impact on the social and psychological behavior of employees.

They conclude that a single office space design doesn’t necessarily accomplish all the goals a manager may have and that there are trade-offs with any given configuration. Elsbach and Pratt contend that managers should know the functional attributes of any given design, which include instrumental, symbolic and aesthetic.

The authors identified three potential tensions that arise. The first is interfunctional, or tension that occurs between functions as in the case of an office partition that has the symbolic function denoting status to a manager, but is at odds with the instrumental function of privacy (conversations in these cubicles are not private).

The second tension is interform, or two separate outcomes, one desired and one undesired, that are the product of one functional attribute. For instance, giving people the ability to control their lighting will increase their sense of control over their work environment which is an instrumental function, but such control will lower their productivity on creative tasks.

The third is intraform tension, or an outcome that has a desired effect but an unintended consequence. For example, the use of physical markers to denote “territories” of organizational groups or expertise can encourage affiliation within that group, but at the same time can be problematic when members are assigned to work group they do not identify with.

Elsbach and Pratt argue that managers need to be acutely aware of the tensions in the work environment and should focus on what functional attributes—instrumental, symbolic and aesthetics—can be improved given their company’s work culture.