Office work environment

I’m going to write about something completely different for a change. If you’re not interested in this subject, I think you should be. It’s about office work environment.

All too often neglected, this is something that I’ve had to fight for at every job I have ever had. Sometimes successfully, most of the time not. It seems like it is very hard to make management understand that they are losing money by not providing adequate working conditions for their employees.

I don’t know about you, but in order to work efficiently, I have to be able to concentrate. That means there must be as few distractions as possible, and my workspace needs to be comfortable. A desk large enough to spread some papers around without every last bit of it being covered, a comfortable chair, a reasonably noise-free environment, no drafts or vibrations, a steady temperature, and good lighting are a few criteria that are important to me.

Right now, I don’t have a lot of those. At my office there are radios playing mindless commercial music, television sets blaring out news, a refrigerator humming and vibrating, people yelling or talking loudly, phones ringing, my chair is uncomfortable, the room is too cold, especially during the winter. No wonder I often have a headache by the time I go home.

Sure, different people have very different needs. I know people who won’t be distracted by anything, while others lose their concentration easily. It also depends a lot on what kind of work you do. Back when I used to design more, and when I worked with video editing, I was much less sensitive to stuff going on around me.

When I’m working with code though, I really need to focus on what I’m doing, and that can be very difficult to do in my current work environment. That is not to say that it’s worse now than at my previous jobs. I have worked under much worse conditions than these. I’ve worked in offices with cigarette smoke coming from the ventilation, in buildings with magnetic fields that made the image of every CRT screen blurry and unstable, and in environments noisy enough to make people use earplugs.

What about you? Do you work from home or at an office? Do you have a room of your own? What is the worst office work environment you have ever been in? The best? For those of you who both design and code, do you need different working conditions depending on what you’re doing? Lots of questions, but important ones.

Posted on October 11, 2004 in Web General


  1. I’ve asked several times for partitions for our desks, we have an ‘open plan’ office.

    It’s always been knocked back for monetary reasons, and now everyone, EVERYONE in my part of the office (the development group) sits with headphones in. It’s called the ‘morgue’ by others, yet management still don’t get it. Other wise the temperature is OK, desks are adequate although I DID have to get a doctor’s note to get a decent chair.

    When I work at home (once a week or more) I easily get not only a lot more done, but the quality is better as I’m not interrupted by other people’s conversations (arguments, laughing, etc). To me, it’s obvious, but I’m having a hard time convincing management otherwise.

  2. Nice Article. I work in my own homeoffice as freelance webdesigner/coder. So i can define the working conditions: + a realy big table (its hard to keep it empty at the end of the day) + a good chair + no noise (aside from children playing in the flat above me) + computer and applications that i want to use

  3. I work from home. A nice home office, with padded floors, a comfortable chair and a custom made desk that is always strewn with a plethora of miscellaneous junk. I have no windows, and the temperature is mostly cool, with the exception fo summer when t can get unbearbly hot in the mid-afternoon. I’m also the only person in my office, but sometimes my familly is home too.

    I find I need to be comfortable, and that depends entirely on my mood. Sometimes the music is loud, and sometimes it is off.

    So far, I’d have to say this is the best working environment I’ve ever been in.

    The worst as working for another developemnt company in my town (Kamloops, BC, Canada) where the chairs were all used from an old office store (uncomfortable) the desks were all from the same stock. The floors were concrete, and in the winter they got so cold your feet would ache even if you kept them off the floor. Not to mention, we all lsitened to different music, so we used headphones. If the phone would ring for me, the senior programmer decided it was best to throw whatever he could find at me to get my atention. That ended the day he hit me in the face with a metal bottle cap. (Let’s just say I had a few choice words with him)

    I left shortly there after. I’m much happier now.

    So, I guess in the long and short of it, The conditions depend on the mood. I’m always happiest listening to music, but the type of music depends on the project.

  4. October 11, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Gordon: We all have headphones here too. Partly to mask out some of the noise, partly because we listen to different kinds of music.

  5. I would have to say the worst office environment I’ve ever worked in was a call center. Just imagine 400+ partial conversations occurring simultaneously. The temperature varied depending on which part of the room you were sitting in and often these regions would vary themselves.

    The desks were partitioned, but nothing more than a wall that would extended the depth of the desk itself. As for chairs, well… With 400 chairs its not difficult to imagine at least one of them breaking down each day. These chairs were rarely replenished so it was a bit of an adventure finding one that was suitable when you started you shift; even if it meant stealing one from a manager while they were on lunch. At least that way they might get the hint.

    One week the company decided to tar the roof. The smell inside was truly unbearable causing all but the most hard core of smokers to become nauseous. One afternoon the workers were on the roof moving some rather heavy equipment, the vibrations they created caused some of the ceiling tiles to collapse upon a number of the call agents while they were handling customers. Not surprisingly the agents were expected to continue with their calls.

    Certainly not an environment I plan on returning to.

  6. You’re preaching to the choire! Work environments are awful in most places. Just another good reason to start working on your own, I guess.

  7. I work in an open plan drafting department, and like Gordon’s situation, almost all of us listen to music through earphones. It’s the only way to cut out the background noise. And then we get drilled by management when they want to talk to you from the otherside of the office, and you don’t hear them.

    We are currently designing our new office which we will be moving into early next year. I designed the new drafting office with 1800 high partitions between the workstations. Management in their infinite wisdom then cut the walls back to 1500 high, which is now a comfortable height for them to lean over and talk to you without actually having the need to be in your workstation area.

    And they still expect you to be productive. Go figure?

    We have an air-conditioning department in the same building who can’t fix, hot in summer and cold in winter conditions.

    I also have a bad back which runs in my fathers side, and it wasn’t until I was taking too many sick days to go to doctors and physios about it, that they decided to give me a suitable chair for my problem. Are you sure we don’t work in the same office Gordon? 8^)

    I hope things change for the better in our new office, otherwise I’ll be making the change.

  8. Chair needs to be nice and soft, I also require copius amounts of Tea. When I actually need to do some work Id prefer to do it alone, when I can be totally absorbed in the process, prefably totally absorbed into sound.

  9. October 11, 2004 by SuzyB

    I know how you feel about office temperature. During the summer month our office is so warm it feels like we’re sitting in a sauna then, as soon as it hits October the temperature drops until its too cold to work…never a happy medium.

  10. I work from home and have a great home office. A nice large heavy desk that gives me a workstation for my Mac, one for my PC as well as lots of room for sketching out ideas and spreading out papers. I’ve also invested quite a few dollars in a nice chair to try to avoid back problems. The only disturbance I have during the run of a day is when the children in the flat above me get home from school, they tend to make a bit of noise, but it dies out very quickly. I’m extremely lucky to have such an excellent place to work.

  11. Buying a notebook and using it as the main computer helped me a lot to keep out things that disturbed me by simply changing environment. I do both - coding and designing - from my home desk. For coding I need quietness, no telephone calls or music. When I’m deep down in code I easily get confused, when the telephone rings. When I do design, I often work in a café with wlan, earphones and music, mysteriously this works very well.

  12. I have my own office so I am for the most part able to control my environment.

    However it’s hot as heck in here in the afternoon when the sun is coming in through the window. I’ve got the blinds closed and a huge desk fan and still in the middle of October I’m burning up.

    I also have the world’s cheapest desk chair. Nice big desk with lots of space and storage, and then a cruddy chair that I’m never comfortable in. I’m constantly shifting around and fidgeting.

  13. October 11, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Working from home would be nice. Technically I could, but it’s pretty limiting not to be able to just turn around and have eye-to-eye contact with the designer or developer working on the same project. And I’d go nuts if I had to spend all day by myself.

    Other than that, my home “office” (which is part of the living room) is much more comfortable than my real office. Better computer, larger desk, more comfortable chair, quiet if I want it to be, my music if I want music, perfect temperature, no phones ringing, faster internet connection etc etc.

  14. Isn’t it amazing that we all have almost the exact same desires for a workspace, yet few of us have it.

    Somewhere in the back of my head there is a thread about the current trend for referring to staff as ‘resource’ and how this is tied, not only to office environment, but office culture as well.

    Perhaps ‘the management’ are fully aware of the environment and it was created that way to foster a certain type of atmosphere. Making sure we all know our place, backed by the ‘resource’ tag, and lack of control to what is often very personal working conditions (I prefer 15.5C, my co-worker prefers 17C temperatures), ensures we aren’t ever comfortable at work. There must be some comfort for them in the state of the job market as a lot of people have little choice but to endure.

    I’ll stop rambling now.. getting a bit off-topic.

  15. I work from home and live in a four bedroom house by myself. Next to my office is my library (insert book geek) with a comfy chair and a small desk sporting a laptop. Although I am more of a project manager, not a programmer and/or designer, since I work for a small virtual company I wear many hats. As the “marketing” guy many times I am expected to be creative (which is the most reward part of my job BTW). I am sure most of you understand at time it helps to get away from the computer and sit in the library w/ books wall-to-wall, lots of plants, comfy chair, legal pad, and mechanical pencil.

    One last point. Almost all my office jobs, a “suit” at ad agencies in DC/Northern Virginia had terrible, I mean terrible work environments.

    But the last firm I worked at was the exact opposite. Every employee, including the receptionist had an office w/ a door and big window. As an account sup I had a work space that was actually bigger then what I have now. But the creative people had offices just as nice and they were allowed to do almost anything (including painting it) they wanted. Lot of plants (we could expense them), couches, tables and chairs so account service could convene on their “turf.” It was stunning actually. I guess that was why a forty person firm could bill more then a million a person and win awards at the same time.

    But alas, the company got bought by EPB and they fired just about everyone in the late 90’s.

  16. I think most successful companies understand that giving their employees a proper work environment increases both the quality of their work and productivity.

    The company I work for provides just about everything we could need to produce quality work. I suggested an open office plan a while back that would allow everyone to see what each of us are working on and allow for impromptu team meetings in our central areas.

    This was a critical mistake. I am convinced now that large open environments don’t work.

    Here are the problems we encounter now: 1) meeting areas are used for client meetings creating huge interruptions for those still working, 2) people take breaks at different times and their conversations fill the office with noise, 3) since people can see you they always seem to interrupt you 4) seating arrangements become socially arranged vs project or team based arrangements.

    A lively arrangement such as this could work for some types of work - like a factory - but not ours.

    Many times the other situations described above are a result of poor management. People with poor management skill thrust into the role to lead a group of people. It’s hard for these people to trust that their team is working, they don’t know how to measure productivity with anything other watching people ensuring they are ‘working’ .

    It’s ironic to note that most of the managers all have offices and yet they spend so much time in meetings they seldom use them. If any group needed constant communication it would be management but wouldn’t that require quite a leap — the production team in offices and management in cubicles.

  17. The most important things for me are a comfortable chair and the ability to adjust the height of both my monitor and keyboard. I tend to suffer from a stiff back, an aching neck, and sore wrists otherwise.

    Unlike you, when I am working on code, I like to have some theme music in the background. It helps me think for whatever reason, though the choice of tunes being played is very crucial. So it is also important for me to have headphones. Music being very important to my emotional well-being, I tend to get self-conscious if other people are hearing what I am listening to.

    I don’t care if I’m in a cubicle farm (as I am now), working next to a 1,000,000 sq ft. warehouse with loud forklifts (previous job) zooming around, or locked in a basement by myself (previous job) as long as I have the adjustable chair & monitor and a set of headphones.

  18. October 12, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Seems a lot of us have less than perfect working conditions. It would be nice to have some numbers to show management that good work environment, while it can look expensive up front, is a good investment.

  19. October 15, 2004 by Avril

    Where I work, we have all these Occupational Health & Safety guideline documents stuck up all over the place. This is so bizarre because it’s like the employees have to be mindful of their own work environment, yet management can clearly ignore these issues and needs of their staffs basic comfort.

    All these documents do is make me realise how much of a scrooge my managers are. I had to make my own foot-rest out of 2 telephone books and tape! And we have the same air-con problems.

    And now some guy at work has decided he needs more room than I do to do his work. So he’s shoved my work station over to the right-side edge of a desk - and i’m right handed. So somehow I’m supposed to move my mouse without it falling off the desk.

    Reading everyone else’s comments has made me re-think my approach to management about these issues. I think I’ll try the “squeaky wheel” approach :) rather than accepting defeat.

  20. I just graduated from college and while I was there, I worked for 3 years at the newspaper as their designer. I worked in a closet inside a closet (yes, you read that right). Known as the “Deeper Hole” and that is just what it was. I could not hear our chatty writers or the people who felt they needed to drop by and visit staff members on production nights. I could listen to music, which is very important when I’m designing and not disturb others. I could even close one of two doors, depending on whether I needed to discuss anything with the Executive Editor (who I worked directly with) or not. The chairs were comfy and the desk/tables were the right height. The room was slightly chilly, but not so much that my hands got cold while typing, which is my preferred temperature. The only downside was our computer equipment was horrible. But that’s another story…

  21. October 22, 2004 by Chris

    Well, I work from home, and I will never buy a workstation desk from an office supplier again. I cannot reach the back of the box and the monitor is placed too far away from the box for a standard length monitor cable. Read ‘Made in China’ on the label. Next time, I will get a cabinet-maker to make me a proper desk. I need lots of more space that what is on the desk at the moment, and the tray holding the keyboard keeps sliding in as I type.

    On the other hand, its a great home office, my library books behind me, and another table in the next room, and a wifi network. Peace and quiet certainly, and hot, hot, hot in the summer. Have a portable air conditioner to fix that problem.

    A chair is critical. I am on my THIRD chair now in 5 years working from home, and what I really need is one of those new age chairs like an X where your back is straight, and your knees take some of the weight. Looking around for one now.

    When I go to my office in India, they play music and expect me to interview freshers with “A Heartache Tonight” and other rock music bellowing from the ceiling. I take my hearing aids out, or switch them off.

  22. Hey guys, I am currently a manager in a law firm and I would like to know what it is that would improve the productivity of my business.Im a jovial person and I interact closely with my workers. I need to know what you people exactly want. You’ve been so vague in this forum. Tell us what you want not what you have. After reading your posts, i got this: 1) A comfortable chair and a workdesk (correct height). 2) Suitable temperatures. 3) Headphones.(for music) 4) Silence. (minimize on hearing other people’s conversations) 5) Good computer equipment.

    What about your bosses?..Would you prefer for them to come around and mingle around? Then again i would like to ask you, If i did provide my workers will all of these luxuries, wouldnt they grow lazy as time passes?..This conditions would be far too comfortable in the end. Please suggest a solution. Thank you! God bless.

  23. Hi there, I am the owner of JL Computer Solutions, Eastland County Texas. We as owners/top level managers are always looking for ideas to stick inside of our own offices. I really like the music playing in the background, I was always taught with calm music it helps people think in parts of the mind that are not available most of the times. Employees have to be comfortable, but then they also need to be working. Sometimes we all grow immune to the environment and take adavantage of it. We sometimes don’t do the things we are supposed to do just because it’s like this everyday.

    Well, Good day everyone.


  24. I also work from home. I’m a programmer and get easily distracted by the smallest noise. In my previous job I had the boss in the same office! He would constantly be making and recieving phone calls which would seriously reduce my productivity. I would check his diary every morning to see when he was due to go out of the office, because then I could really knuckle down and get some work done. I’m much happier now that I’m working from home, there are no distractions apart from the occasional phone call and I can listen to whatever music I choose to on my surround system. Usuaually I go for relaxing/classical music as this seems to aid my concentration.

  25. December 15, 2004 by MARLYNN

    I understand your article completely. My job also requires alot of typing and concentration. I need my radio lightly humming in the background but my number 1 distractions is that I freeze in my office. I along with a few other offices are on the same thermostat as the equipment room and that room has to be kept cold. I am cold even in the summertime but at least I can handle it then. Now during winter, with sweaters and jackets on, I sit most of the day trying to warm my hands, my feet, trying to not shake. I am much less productive then I normally am. I have raised the issue but not much seems to be done. There is not even a way to shut my vent. The work environment is a big issue when it comes to productivity from workers.

  26. I work at a firm where we have a line of offices served by the same thermostat and on the same AC line. Above my desk is an AC vent that continuously sounds like a jet engine and blows out 60 degree (F) cold air when the AC is on. My ears ring and constantly ache from the noise, my sinuses are stuffed and apparently infected by the dust being blown through the vent, and the muscles in my back and shoulders are tensed up tightly from the cold air blowing on them.

    When I express my discomfort to my boss, he says that everyone else in the same line of offices is ok. So, aside from feeling like I have no choice but to be sick or to be employed, do I have any other options?

  27. May 4, 2005 by Adam

    Funny enough, I work in an office in a third world nation where ‘work’ is a term that refers to turning up late and doing as little as possible (and finding the most obscure reasons why you cant do even your most basic duties).

    Its impossible to fire people without a long drawn out process involving the local labour board, and then you usually have to pay them severance (even had to once when one was caught stealing as the dismissal didnt follow the obscure and abitrary laws here).

    So here I sit with three other peoples radios blaring (yes blaring) and one person watching soaps.

    So I switched off to it, management wont let me work from home so I get done what I can and what I cant I cant, but if I run some wrong SQL on the database I’m the one that will catch it in the backside.

    My next job (if it pans out) should be my own company and boy do I have some ideas on office conditions. NO audible music of any kind, removing phones from the desks of 90% of the staff….its funny how few people actually need a phone…honestly think about it for a minute….unless its to constantly have loud conversations with their mates.

    The removal of TV cards from PC’s as well as MSN messenger. This might sound a little draconian but imagine a silent office where there are no phones going off and people actually knuckle down and work…….bliss!

  28. Good to see that I am not the only anal bastard out there when it comes to noise levels..

    Myself and the backend programmmer are also distracted by office noise, but thankfully our employer is going to pay for a solution.

    We’re looking at getting some noise-cancelling headphones (eg Sony MDR NC20) or noise-isolation ear buds (eg Etymotic Research ER4P - those these are pretty pricey).

    Does anyone else use headphones to combat radios and general office noise? What models/brands would you recommend?


  29. I too work in an open-plan office environment and you always have that one person that makes life miserable for the rest of the people in the room. There are only myself and two other people in this room, but the one person makes it feel like there are about 20 people in this one office. If she isn’t talking to herself she is yelling on the phone to volumes the people I am talking to can hear. She whistles and it isn’t whistling like the 7 dwarfs it is annoying whistling like she can’t hardly breath or something. Then finally she has to have the radio on all day everyday. She turns it on immediately when she gets here in the morning and it doesn’t go off until she leaves in the afternoon. I am sorry but I have enough going on in my head that I don’t have to have all the noise all day. I mean I need some kind of break, I am to the point of breakdown. I have talked to my manager and instead of facing the problem she just is going to put me in my own cube well they aren’t exactly sound barriers. Unless she learns there are other people in this office the problem will not be solved.

    Thanks for listening to me rant and rave!!!

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