Office space surveys

I've just read two questionnaires aiming to find out what people feel about working in their office space (or rather doing their work).

As I read them I wondered how many people, when they are looking for a job, factor in the physical office space. (Beyond how long their commute to it is).

How many people at a job interview get the chance to actually look at the space they will be working in and work out whether its physical aspects of: light, heat, noise, closeness to coffee machine, lavatories, etc. are conducive to their well-being?

In my experience, asking interview questions about the physical space are not frequently found on a standard checklist of interview questions (either for the interviewee or the interviewer). But that would be useful for both parties. The physical space has significant impact on productivity.

However, the two surveys I looked both had severe limitations. What, for example, is gained by asking the questions:

In general, how satisfied are you with your office location in terms of the neighborhood or town that surrounds it?

Overall, how satisfied are you with the physical work environment, which includes all offices, workstations, hallways, common areas, reception, waiting areas, etc.?

If a respondent says they are not satisfied with the office location in terms of the neighborhood what is the action that can be taken?

On the second question why lump every part of the office into one 'overall' impression about satisfaction? Again what is the action that can be taken at that level?

Maybe in both these instances they would be better framed as questions about 'attitudes' of the organization – so the first could read 'the place where my office is located reflects the image that it want to project' and the second 'the physical work environment overall shows the level of care the organization takes of its employees and customers'. Though information gained from this may not be actionable either but it may be more useful than satisfaction levels.

Edgar Schein a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, discusses several reasons "why culture surveys do not and cannot measure culture". What he says could equally be applied to office space surveys.

1. There is no way of knowing what office space attributes are important in any one organisation. Even so, the off the shelf surveys make an assumption that the dimensions they pick up are the same for all organisations that take that survey. Without doing a lot more digging for information it is not clear on what basis these dimensions have been picked out,whether they are relevant to the organization being surveyed, and even if so, the relative contribution of each to the culture of the organisation.

2. There is no way of knowing what a respondent is reading into the questions. In the examples above, is 'neighborhood' being experienced in the same way by everyone? Are individuals consistent in their thinking about what constitutes 'waiting areas'?

3. There is no way of knowing what the individual interpretation of a question is (or, indeed, if the respondent is answering honestly or in good faith), it is a leap of faith to assume that individual responses can be aggregated into a perspective on the whole organisation's work space.

4. There is an implication that if the survey results show issues or problems then something will happen to address these. However, there may not be a will to do anything about the issues. If there is no budget to address issues, or the organisation is performing well enough what is the impetus to change anything?

5. The surveys take a reductionist view of space which attempts to isolate independent variables (heat, light, noise). The problem with this is that even if surveys had meaningful variables they are not independent. Every variable is dependent in some way on every other.

6. Assume, by using the same dimensions in the survey, that attitudes to space are homogeneous and shared across all employees. Again this is not typically the case. In organisations of any size there are variations in layout, furnishings, equipment, interaction possibilities, and so on.

7. Imply that they are more than a snapshot in a particular time – over-riding the dynamic and constantly changing nature of space. (It can be hot and noisy one day, and cool and quiet the next).

That is not to say that surveys like the two I looked at are valueless. It is to say that they have many limitations and to get to meaningful and actionable information requires more and different work than simply analyzing survey responses. Interviewing people doing different types of jobs in a variety of locations in a particular organization might get over some of the survey problems. Recognizing the limitations of the findings would also facilitate proceeding with caution.

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