Research

Say Goodbye to Cubicle Farms
California Management Review, 2007

Getting the most from employees might involve more than a motivational speech from management—think design.

In their recent article, “It’s More Than a Desk: Working Smarter Through Leveraged Office Design,” published in the winter issue of the California Management Review, Professor Kimberly Elsbach and Assistant Professor Beth Bechky lay out systematic ways managers can design office space to inspire group membership, improve collaboration and encourage group problem solving among their employees.

In their study, Elsbach and Bechky identify three design functions that each motivate different types of social outcomes:  instrumental, symbolic and aesthetic. According to Elsbach and Bechky, instrumental functions improve the performance and satisfaction of workers and include aids in problem solving, group decision making and collaboration. Symbolic functions affect the cultures and identities of organizations and its workers. These include representations that imply a worker’s individual territory or membership in a particular organizational hierarchy (management vs. staff). Finally, aesthetic functionality in design refers to a general sensory experience including cognitive and emotional responses to décor.

Elsbach and Bechky argue that these design functions can be applied to create a desired social outcome. Managers who understand and recognize these design functions can create work spaces that will enhance worker productivity, loyalty and a sense of place. One example is round, curtained meeting rooms that have adjustable rolling white boards, storage cubbies, display shelves and pivoting projector screen.

Teams can customize such rooms to ease and improve collaboration. According to the authors, all three design functions, instrumental, symbolic and aesthetic, are in play to varying degrees. The key to optimizing design elements is that managers must be aware of the tasks that are to be performed in a particular context.

The researchers warn that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” in regards to office design and that each design functionality can be assessed and applied at varying degrees depending on the eventual desired social outcome. In March, Elsbach and Bechky’s study was cited as one of four noteworthy articles from academic business journals on Economist.com.

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