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Psychologist helps design offices where employees want to work

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sitting down for breakfast at the Westin Convention Center, Pittsburgh, Jay Brand notices that the table is too close to the wall, making it tough for him to squeeze into his seat.

(Ted Crow, Post-Gazette)

"Would you mind if I moved this?" he asked.

Brand, a cognitive psychologist, is trained to notice every change in his surroundings -- the position of the table, the noise from the street, the ergonomics of his chair and the quality of the air. He is paid to notice the effect of such changes on other people.

While Brand has a doctorate in experimental psychology, a more apt description of his job might be "building psychologist." Day after day, for Michigan-based office furniture maker Haworth Inc., Brand visits office buildings around the country and tests employees to see how they react subconsciously to the noise, lighting and temperature of their workplaces.

Brand gathers his data surreptitiously, observing how employees respond to subtle changes in their office environments. He passes that data along to an architect, who then incorporates Brand's conclusions in the design of new office space.

Brand, 42, was Downtown last week to ply his trade in the Federal Office Building, which is scheduled to undergo a $67 million renovation. The General Services Administration, landlord to the federal government, has set up an experimental area on one floor of the Downtown building to measure the responses of employees and gather data.

Brand, Lawrenceville-based KSBA Architects and Minneapolis-based Orfield Laboratories, another consultant on the project, have visited the space several times in recent months to examine the building and test reactions to acoustics, lighting, temperature, humidity, privacy and quality of the indoor air. Brand's job in the Federal Office Building, as with other properties around the country, is to find out what kind of office environment employees would prefer to have.

And what do most employees prefer?

Jay Brand

One of the most popular choices, he said, is a window view. "It's hard to predict what people like, and it varies; but generally, people do not like to stare at a wall," he said. Brand said people also prefer "symmetrically lit" offices, where a floor is covered with different levels of light. People generally do not like noise and distractions, Brand added, but they do not prefer total silence, either.

While these may sound like obvious likes and dislikes, Brand said companies and office designers do not pay much attention to such concerns.

"There are tantalizing clues that there may be something wrong with the major trends in current office design," he said, "if you define success in terms of the occupants.

"We need to find ways of measuring success that also measure the impact on people."

The current problems of office design, he said, began with the railroad industry, which built many of the first "offices" in the late 1800s by housing clerks at a central location to process legal contracts. All employees, except for the managers, worked in bullpens, enveloped by the click and clack of adding machines.

Such an office stayed popular until architects in the 1950s and 1960s pushed a design movement known as "Burolandschaft," which is German for "office landscape." Created by a organizational consulting firm in Quickborn, Germany, the "office landscape" movement emphasized an open, organic office environment resembling a garden or park, where each employee, manager or senior executive could act as an active participant in his or her surroundings.

But Brand said the office landscape idea was "almost immediately corrupted" by real estate developers and building managers who used movable, cubed furniture to mark off territory and fit more people into smaller and smaller spaces.

Now, such an environment is lampooned, most popularly by the cartoon strip "Dilbert." "It seems that the popularity of Dilbert suggests there is something fundamentally adverse here about the notion of putting people like rats in cages," he said.

But Brand says cubicles aren't necessarily an evil thing.

He noted, for example, that while an open-plan office may save money, it can come at the cost of employee productivity and happiness. Citing a study that compared the open-office environment to quieter surroundings, Brand described how the typical noise level in an "open" office increases employee stress and reduces their levels of motivation.

Citing another study, Brand also pointed out that 82 percent of a typical company's costs over a 10-year period are employee-based and only 5 percent are related to real estate.

"That demonstrates that people are the most important investment a company makes," Brand said. "So why would we take that 5 percent and try to squeeze every last dime out of those costs if there is any chance it is going to have a negative effect on people?"

"The occupants have gotten lost in this whole deal. What about the occupants? Who is asking them about what they need, what their preferences are?"

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