Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

This one is for those who think that work environment doesn’t matter

As a strong proponent of giving people more control over where they work, it was only a short matter of time before I ran up against those who erroneously insist that work environment doesn’t matter. Their claim is that the only thing that matters is that you’re doing what you’re good at and that it doesn’t matter where you are doing this at. They don’t get it. If work environment really doesn’t matter, then the following clip from the popular film Office Space would not register as anything significant. What’s the difference anyway if Milton works on the same floor as everyone else or in the basement if work environment doesn’t matter?

The truth is that, for ages, we’ve relied on environmental cues for information that signal situations in which we should be stressed, anxious, fearful, etc. It is common knowledge that a room in which the predominant color is red whets the appetite moreso than another color would. Why do various colors stir up different reactions? What about acoustic distractions? Odors?

We ARE affected by our work environment though, yes, there are elements of subjectivity and relativity. This reflects our natural individual differences. Some of us perform work in dangerous environments, however people who are able to do so tend to already be naturally predisposed to react to threats with more calm (the trait “neuroticism” on the Big 5 – a measure of emotional stability and tolerance for stress or aversive stimulation). Others may even be pumped up by threatening environments and experience more of a thrill. I have, in fact, performed some work that required workers to have fairly low susceptibility to fear and would happily entertain opportunities to work as an animal field researcher in some less comfortable, outdoor settings (though perhaps not everywhere). At least it’s not boring!

When it comes to work that requires very heavy reading, writing, analyzing, and researching however, nothing beats the home office for me. A number of us, though not all of us, would agree that we are more productive working in our home environment than in a boring, stale office environment. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to say that going from working at home to working at the office is a “step down” much like Milton’s move to the basement. So instead of smacking the whole issue down with a knee-jerk reaction and waving off the importance of work environment across the board, it’s time to take the educated approach. Let’s open up discussion and debate about the ways and extent to which it does and doesn’t. To what extent do boring (or stimulating) environments impact our brains for example?

And for those who still believe that work environment doesn’t matter or, more specifically, that you should be able to do whatever it is you’re good at doing no matter what the work environment…

Uh, we’re gonna need to move your desk downstairs into Storage B… Uh, we have some new people coming in and we need all the space we can get. And if you could go ahead and get a can of pesticide and take care of the roach problem we’ve been having that would be great. (Office Space, 1999)


Finally, more videoconferencing dates have been added for “Innovating the way dispersed teams collaborate!”

Register at the Better Collaboration Meetup page and email if you have any questions. Better Collaboration is about helping organizations improve collaboration of dispersed teams.

  • Wednesday, April 24, 2013
  • Wednesday, May 8, 2013
  • Wednesday, May 22, 2013
  • Wednesday, June 5, 2013

1:00 PM to 2:30 PM Eastern time (EST)/10:00 AM to 11:30 AM Pacific time (PST)

See details on the Events page.

4 responses to “This one is for those who think that work environment doesn’t matter

  1. Alex Hagan April 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    “Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler.” I LOVE Office Space and Milton in particular, thanks for posting.

    It’s so true that the environment can make such an enormous different to our work. I have experienced both sides – the stimulating environment where you are so engaged you lose track of time, and the underwhelming environment where you can actually feel your motivation and skill-set atrophy. I think the challenge for management is that as you’ve pointed out, different environments suit individuals to different degrees. Personally, I find different environments work for me depending on the task I’m doing – for example, A cafe is great for writing, whereas an airplane is ideal for reading and coming up with new strategies.

    • Lynn Patra April 14, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      Thanks for commenting Alex! Yes, people can react so differently to different stimuli. I think the people who disagree with this tend to be the ones who project their own experiences onto others (i.e., “I can do this therefore everyone else should be able to…”). This post was sparked by a discussion I had with a relative who is fine with the “time cage” experience (having to be at X place precisely from time Y to time Z every workday).

      I tend to resemble the main character, Peter Gibbons, making that desperate, hurried getaway when I can. However, I also take that last bit of work and do it at home since I’m not trying to “jip” the employer. I figure why does it matter that I’ve done work at home when no one’s left at the office to observe me doing it anyway? 😛

      • Regan April 25, 2013 at 8:54 pm

        I think you’re spot on about people projecting their own experiences on to others. I often hear managers say – just go talk to the person, just call them, just get the right people together and get to the bottom of it… For them this is their realty – spending most of the day dealing with reactively to issues people come to them with. Whereas the people below them often have to produce creative work – which takes quite a different mindset – it sustained periods of quiet time to think through the creative solution.

        • Lynn Patra April 26, 2013 at 2:40 am

          Thanks for your comment Regan! 🙂 Yes, it’s that age old problem of how to enable people to imagine what having a different mindset and different needs might be like. I’ve noticed how much it tends to be people who aren’t as imaginative that engage in projection more.

          Drawing upon your example, even though I’m very introverted I can imagine why more extroverted people would like the external stimulation coming from dealing with lots of people even though I don’t viscerally experience those feelings and sensations to the degree that they do. However, when the tables are turned it often becomes, “What??? I don’t understand how someone would NOT want all this noise and stimulation. How can you tolerate so much solitude?!” My example is not to say that extroverts are generally like this of course as plenty of extroverts in show biz must be able to imagine being someone else in order to act like someone else!

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