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A spoof on office space: improving workplace stress begins with a new attitude about the work environment.

Have you been to the movies lately? If not, there's an interesting little parable titled "Office Space," starring a promising young actor by the name of Ron Livingston. It's a must-see for anyone who can relate to and laugh at the pains and pleasures of working in an open-office environment.

In the film, Livingston's character is coping in a work environment where the stress of constant acoustical interruptions, poor lighting, claustrophobic personal space, and ineffective management styles taunt him. Accentuated by moveable walls tall enough to hide behind but not thick enough to absorb sound, Livingston's character is bombarded with constant clashes in interoffice personalities and paranoia as a result of corporate downsizing rumors. (If the sheer mention of this causes you to assume the fetal position, seek professional help now.)

The Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, suggests that workplace stress is affected by a person's inability to control his/her office environment. Clinical research concluded that ordinary office activity, such as constantly ringing telephones, increased radio and voice levels, machinery errors, co-worker conflict, and job insecurity, leads to a chemical reaction to stress that, over time, contributes to physical and emotional illness. "Greater attention to the design of work environments may be one important way to reduce inequalities in health," says Professor Michael Marmot, International Centre for Health and Society, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, UCL, London, UK, in a 1997 interview with The Lancet.

What does this mean for building owners and facilities professionals? Understanding how the work environment affects stress levels can aid in the longevity of tenants; improve tenant relations; and increase the marketability of a property. This is not to say that open office environments are a less than desirable alternative to the stodgy, hierarchical bank of private offices, with square footage being a measurement of success. Recognizing that the hierarchy in a corporate setting calls for different types of interactions between parties is a first step toward developing a successful, stress-free open-office plan.

Furniture companies such as Steelcase, Trendway, Office Specialty, Teknion, Haworth, and Herman Miller - to name several - have proven the benefits of open offices for nearly a generation now. These systems use attractive and functional furnishings and finishes to supply workers with comfortable and convenient storage and power hookups, while allowing users to group departments by color and style with sound-absorbing panels. Open-office environments expand personal spaces by incorporating comfortable gathering areas that allow workers to step away from their individual workspaces. This flexibility helps fuel creativity and reduce stress levels.

Being sensitive to acoustics, lighting, and indoor air quality needs is paramount to comfort and productivity. Companies such as Hubbell Lighting, Lutron, Johnson Controls, and The Watt Stopper offer personal environmental controls that allow workers to control the balance between ambient and natural light sources; diffuse background noise through sound masking; and provide a temperature-controlled environment.

Employees under stress have been known to be destructive to property. In "Office Space," the mumbling, disgruntled Milton - an employee systematically relegated to less attractive and less productive spaces until he eventually resides in a lightless storage area in his corporation's basement - decides to take measures into his own hands. In retaliation for the loss of a stapler, his unbearable work environment, and the fact that he is no longer receiving a paycheck due to a glitch, he sets the building on fire. (Not surprisingly, many in the audience applauded his act of "courage.")

For those who haven't seen "Office Space," do. For those who have seen it, leave your power tools at home and remember that there is a huge difference between relocation and relegation.

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well

Keys to alleviating workplace stress begin with allowing employees some control over their work environments. Here are some simple ways to provide a more stress-free environment for building occupants.

* Wherever possible, use sound-masking surfaces on ceilings, wall-coverings, and flooring.

* Don't assume that taller wall heights are a better solution. Lowering partitions allows more natural light to penetrate into the workplace.

* The same is true for open environments as with glue - less is more. Making office space less confining and more adaptive with community areas promotes creativity and communication.

* Relocate noisy office equipment to higher traffic areas already prone to high noise levels. Also be sure to include a few comfy chairs and a table or two for those impromptu meetings at the copier or fax machine.

* Don't assume that cost outweighs the benefits when considering perks such as exercise rooms, attractive dining spaces, and outdoor seating areas. A change in atmosphere can also mean a change in attitude and an increase in productivity.

* Be a part of the solution. Recognize the value of communication and jump into the middle of it by eliminating the physical hierarchy of private offices that projects the illusion of policing employees.
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Author:Vangen, Clara M.W.
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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