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Workspace Personalization: Physical, Digital and In-Between

I've encountered a number of articles lately about organizational and personal aspects of ubiquitous cubicles (UbiCubes?), and these have brought to mind a number of ways that people have explored personalizing their workspaces with atoms and/or bits.


Fortune recently posted an article, Cubicles: The Great Mistake, providing an historical overview and future predictions for the use of these open-plan modular units in the workplace.  The original design intention behind cubicles, created in the 1960s by Bob Probst, director of research at Herman Miller, as part of their Action Office initiative, was to boost productivity by providing more surface area for work materials, including multiple desktop surfaces, shelving and partitions.  But a combination of rising real estate costs and new tax incentives added a financial efficiency aspect to the equation, quickly leading to the domination of the cubicle as the office furniture unit of choice for many companies.  Unfortunately, the efficiency gains from the proliferation and packing of cubicles came at the expense of some of the original effectiveness goals:

... what businesses wanted wasn't to give employees a holistic experience. The customers wanted a cheap way to pack workers in.

In another recent article, Why Dilbert is Right, the Gallup Management Journal reported the results of a survey on worker comfort and engagement, and found that

  • "Employees working in a comfortable environment [with respect to temperature and noise] are much more likely to be engaged and to make a positive contribution to the organization's financial success" [this follows an earlier Galllup survey reported on the high cost of employee disengagement]
  • "... the problem might not be the type of workspace that employees are given -- it might be that employees aren't allowed to make that space their own."

Cubicle_img_1716 Cubicle_img_1717 Cubicle_img_1718 Cubicle_img_1722

In some organizations and work sites, people have gone to great lengths to modify their physical spaces in personal and inspirational ways.  Among the most compelling examples I saw of this was in the workspaces inhabited by my former Intel colleagues in the User Centered Design group, where it was sometimes difficult to see any of original surfaces in the designers' cubicle areas.

[Xerox] PARC did some seminal work on Responsive Office Environments in the early 1990s, which enabled office workers to exert a new level of control over their space, and included the capability for an technologically-enhanced office to learn how to adjust the temperature to balance the preferences of office workers and energy conservation goals. 


In the late 1990s, IBM Research worked with Steelcase on a joint research project called BlueSpace, which which offered workers additional dimensions of personalization and control over workspaces:

  • Project: BlueSpace, a next generation workspace solution encompassing multiple software and hardware components that integrate sensors, actuators, displays and wireless networks into architectural elements.
  • Goal: To increase knowledge workers' productivity by deterring unwanted interruptions, improving awareness and fluid communication among team members, and providing greater individual comfort through personalized environmental settings.
    A longer-term goal is to create modular workspace solutions that can be combined in different ways to optimize workspace utilization and worker efficiency.


More recently, a Chicago Tribune article lamented iPod Isolation, the increasing tendency of many workers in cube farms to personalize the aural aspect of their individual workspace environment through the use of headphones and digital music players.  Some employers frown upon this practice because it may signify a "personal playground atmosphere" at work, or signal a "do not disturb" status to other employees.  However, another employer noted that music offers an opportunity for employees to learn more about each other, through sharing playlists on a network drive.


If the headphones are removed, additional opportunities for learning about each other may be provided through music in the workplace.  We experimented with this notion through the MusicFX project at Accenture Technology Labs in the late 1990s, where we designed and deployed a system to automatically adapt the music played in a corporate fitness center environment to the preferences of the people working out there at any given time.  One of the unintended consequences of this system -- which was in daily use for over 3 years -- was that the music sometimes changed abruptly upon the arrival of a new person, revealing that person's taste, or distaste, for a certain genre of music to everyone else present ... resulting in new opportunities for people to learn about each other ("Oh, I didn't know you liked 'Hawaiian Music'!" or "What have you got against 'Rap'?").


Dennis Chao and his colleagues at University of New Mexico took this notion a step further with their Adaptive Radio project.  Their system offered a shared music listening opportunity -- again, without headphones -- in the workplace (vs. workout place), and explored whether and how a balance could be achieved between minimizing the need for user input while maximizing the responsiveness of the shared aural environment.


Back at Accenture, we also turned our attention to the workplace, but decided to explore the ways that an office environment could sense and respond to people in the visual domain rather than the aural domain, with what we called ubiquitous peripheral displays.  This project included a a suite of applications illustrating a future wherein video displays will be everywhere, permeating a broad range of physical environments throughout the workplace: inside an individual workspace (UniCast), outside an individual workspace (OutCast) and in a common area adjoining a cluster of workspaces (GroupCast).  All of these applications involved the use of personal profiles containing a range of information sources in which a person was interested -- photos, headlines, weather, and about a dozen other information sources -- and a network of infrared sensors and personnel badges.  [GroupCast was the forerunner of the proactive displays I've written about many times before.]


I recently experienced deja vu when I installed Google Desktop, and discovered that I could park a virtual peripheral display on the right-hand side of my WXGA laptop screen. Although it doesn't allow the level of personalization we incorporated into UniCast, it's nice to once again have a channel offering peripheral awareness of interesting, but not terribly urgent, types of information.  I'm particularly addicted to the Photos pane, which periodically reminds me of the important people and events in my life, and I look forward to experimenting with the "Send to" feature that enables people to share information through their respective News panes.  It would be interesting to conduct a study on the impact of Google Desktop among people in a cube farm ... whether and how the personalization of virtual workspaces that are in close proximity to one another in physical space affects socialization -- and engagement --throughout the larger workplace.

[Update, 10-Apr-2006: a little searching for cubicle psychology in response to Dan's excellent comment turned up a Psychology Today article, Betrayed By Your Desk, which references some very interesting and relevant work by Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues, on the everyday manifestations of personality in a variety of environments:

  • Physical environments (e.g., bedrooms, offices)
  • Virtual environments (e.g., webpages)
  • Aural environments (e.g., music)
  • Social environments (e.g., the places and activities where we spend our time)

This work has resulted in some scales for measuring some important aspects of these environments:

  • Ten Item Personality Measure (TIPI)
  • Short Test Of Music Preferences (STOMP)
  • Personal Living Space Cue Inventory (PLSCI)

I haven't read the papers on this work yet -- beyond some brief skimming -- but I'm delighted to have discovered yet another kindred spirit from a different dimension!]

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