published Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Opening up at work: Chattanooga office spaces becoming more interesting

Cody Mohon works Tuesday at The Johnson Group.
Cody Mohon works Tuesday at The Johnson Group.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Adam Litchfield leaps across the office floor to smash a ping-pong ball back at his co-workers, just barely making the play before slamming into his own glass office wall.

"Someone's going to smash through this one day," he says with a smile. "It's kind of a war zone out here."

A few of his co-workers at the Smart Furniture offices on Market Street chuckle. Another, walking by staring at a laptop, stoops to pick up the ball and toss it back to the competitors.

Litchfield and the three other players wrapped up their game just as a staff meeting began. The four put down their paddles, grabbed a few chairs and quickly flipped the mental switch back to work mode.

The four were able to quickly and enthusiastically dive into a discussion about the past year's numbers and goals for the coming months.

They and several of their co-workers said they are happy to be at their jobs, a quality they believe translates to better work.

And they're not the only ones. A growing number of Chattanooga businesses have adopted open office cultures, following the belief that a comfortable, happy employee is a productive one.

"There's not really one size fits all," said Brian O'Leary, head of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Psychology Department and an industrial and organizational psychology expert. "It's really an interaction between the person and the environment, cultural norms and the type of work."

FUN FACTOR

Break room features such as ping-pong tables have the potential to boost productivity, O'Leary said, so long as the workplace culture motivates workers to actually take advantage of break times.

"It provides them an opportunity to release any stress that's built up over that period," he said. "Increases in employee moral are increases in productivity, which is the bottom line."

Of course, if employees spend three hours a day throwing darts instead of making sales calls, problems can arise.

Research shows a strong connection between productivity and a worker's happiness. People meeting goals will feel proud and accomplished and therefore happy.

But the link between happy workers and productive workers isn't as strong. For an extreme example, workers who are allowed to come in late, take a long lunch, spend an hour by the water cooler, do a bit of work and go home may be very happy but not very productive.

"There has to be something guiding your decision," O'Leary said. "There has to be some study or research or your own personal experience."

OFFICE LAYOUT

That same kind of philosophy should guide how an office is designed.

The Smart Furniture location has two floors of glass-walled offices all looking toward the open center space. O'Leary said such open spaces are great for businesses that want to promote interaction between employees.

Rick Thompson, president of local architecture firm Artech, said similar open designs are becoming increasingly popular.

Companies are including features such as movable partitions in their office spaces, opening up workspaces and allowing greater space flexibility. An increasing number of Thompson's clients are requesting that flexibility to promote employee interactions.

"Your responsibility to them is to get them more efficient and happy in their space," Thompson said.

One of the open offices Artech designed houses local marketing agency The Johnson Group. Its offices are separated by industrial flourishes made from salvaged office materials such as doors and fencing.

The space was designed to reflect the creativity needed in the marketing business while giving workers their own semiprivate areas. The offices are arranged to promote interaction among employees while affording them a space to duck their heads down and focus on their own work when necessary.

Ultimately, the most important feature of an office space is how it affects employees' abilities to work. O'Leary said all offices can improve worker moral by providing employees with their own personal space and plenty of natural light, but beyond that office design should relate to a company's goals.

A business requiring creative, extroverted people would benefit from an open office. Jobs that need intense focus may be better off with more divided spaces.

Ultimately, the work space has to reflect the job.

"It all goes back to your selection process," O'Leary said. "Who is it you want to work at your place of business?"

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