There used to be a time when there was only one type of work environment. The traditional cubicle office setup was so common that it became ingrained in pop culture. However, the rise of technology has enabled employers to experiment with other work environments. From open workspaces to virtual offices, people now have a wider set of choices about where and how they work. What makes each work environment unique, and how can you choose the work setup that’s right for you?
Work environments can be classified based on their physical setup or the nature of the jobs they support. Other types of environments are differentiated by their psychological impacts and the kinds of personalities they foster. Knowing your workplace environment helps you utilize it fully.
Each year brings more innovations to the workspace, so it can be difficult to keep track of all the possible options. By taking a few minutes to review the different types of work environments, you can more confidently aim for the ones where you and your team can be most productive.
Types of Workspace Environments
When talking about work environments, people often refer to the arrangement of the physical elements in a workplace. Does the workspace have partitions to maximize privacy, or does it have a more open layout to encourage collaboration?
In the early days of the Industrial Revolution when factory work dominated, workers were expected to stay in a predefined area for most of the working day. Time-in and time-out were strict, and workers took organized shifts to ensure that factory productivity remains fairly constant.
People nowadays have way more options in choosing their workspaces. Productivity software and other related technology are empowering managers and employees to experiment with more styles. According to Professor Ndubuisi Ekekwe, lead faculty at Tekedia Institute, “The world is undergoing a massive corporate re-architecting, but it is not just because of the Ukraine-Russian conflict, or fear of recession, but rather, new business model evolutions!”
The rise of the information economy and increased automation have made the traditional workplace less relevant. Nevertheless, some jobs still require the traditional setup. For instance, traditional careers such as banking or law commonly embrace the typical office structure and the 9-to-5 schedule. These careers rely on reputational assets and require working with clients or partners with similarly conservative styles, hence the enduring preference for the traditional workplace style.
The work environment is a time-honored tradition that works. In some cases, people who expect this style cannot imagine themselves in any other environment. A cubicle-like desk also helps some people work more effectively by removing distractions.
However, the rigid structures and limited options for customization can turn off other people from the traditional setup. Many people report feelings of isolation in conventional office environments, and many employees eventually feel monotony and boredom.
Research into organizational psychology revealed that a company’s productivity is influenced by the mental and psychological well-being of its workers. Throughout the decades, research also revealed the importance of workplaces that foster:
- creativity, and
- a sense of belongingness.
According to COMMO, a real estate company in Australia, “A global surge in hybrid working trends will fuel the growth of local flexspaces and place greater emphasis on the office experience.”
In response, many companies made it a priority to revamp their workspaces as open playgrounds of innovation and fun places to work in. The open office archetype gradually emerged at the turn of the century. Instead of cubicles and separate desks, employees work on wide communal tables and are free to move anytime. These workplaces encourage employees to communicate with each other. Thus, many physical barriers as possible were removed to maximize openness.
The open office setup works for many creative industries as diverse as advertising and digital arts. Jobs that require high levels of coordination, including those that involve frequent brainstorming sessions, benefit the most from an open office environment. Most employees feel their communal nature and find it easy to reach out to people. Open office setups also help break command structure barriers, helping to level managers and employees, reinforcing the idea that they are all working as a cohesive team.
One significant drawback to the open office format is the lack of boundaries. Many employees report being distracted often, given how easy it is to reach out to a co-worker in this environment. Open offices also remove the sense of privacy that the traditional office offers.
Proper work etiquette, especially in handling distractions, is the key to reducing the drawbacks of the open office setup.
We have a more detailed analysis of open-plan workspace in our article, “Advantages and disadvantages of an open-plan office space.”
In recent years, some companies have been exploring how to combine the best aspects of traditional and open office environments. This line of thinking eventually led to the agile office setup, which essentially allows people to choose the type of work style they prefer.
An agile workplace can be called an activity-based workspace. Like traditional offices, they contain rooms and other private spaces for focused work. Like open offices, they have communal desks and other shared facilities for people who want to work collaboratively. The interior design of such workplaces emphasizes integrating creativity within the corporate aesthetic, allowing for interesting designs.
Agile offices, as their name implies, are best for teams who have to deploy rapidly and are faced with ever-changing tasks. Workers can choose the workspace that best fits their current task. The presence of private spaces within a larger collaborative area emphasizes the collaborative nature of the office without sacrificing personal privacy. Agile offices represent the best of traditional and open spaces.
The main drawback of agile offices is that they can sometimes offer too many options. When presented with many choices, people are more likely to feel regret for having to reject multiple options. The same principle applies in agile offices, making it confusing for teams to choose which options are the best for them at the moment.
Agile offices are also only as good as their components, and they rely on well-maintained facilities to function effectively. For some companies, the costs of maintaining agile offices might not be justified by any amount of productivity increase.
According to Harvard Business Review, “agile collaboration requires continual re-assessment of complex problems.”
Some employers, particularly start-ups and small enterprises, decide to eschew the concept of an owned workspace altogether! Initially, due to a lack of capital, many start-ups simply rent spaces from co-working providers. Even once finances improve, some companies prefer to keep their system of renting workspaces. This approach of relying on external spaces might seem unnecessarily complicated, but it also has its benefits.
By renting offices, employers can run a business with lower capital requirements. This type of jumpstarting a company is great for rapidly testing ideas and allows more funds to go into expanding the business.
Employees can also benefit from external spaces. They can get a workspace that’s the best fit for their tasks on any given day, especially with the rise of dedicated co-working spaces. The prospect of a new work environment every day also entices some people and keeps the daily grind from becoming monotonous.
However, external spaces are also potential money drains. In the long run, it usually makes more financial sense to build a permanent office than to rely on renting long term. Not having an owned workspace means that people have limited options for designing a particular workspace according to their wishes. Finally, having to decide on what spaces to rent can eat up valuable time that could be better spent doing actual work.
Different Work Schedules
Aside from the overall physical setup of a particular work environment, it’s also important to consider the various work schemes available to employees. The traditional setup is for people to go to the office in the morning, spend most of the day working, then go home at another specified hour. Depending on the nature of your work, it might be possible to adopt work schemes that offer more flexibility.
According to Alexis von Hoensbroech of WestJet, “the pandemic forced us to fast forward remote working into our business reality – which I think is a great innovation.”
Traditional Office-Based Work
The traditional 9-to-5 work scheme has its roots in factory work. While people used to work very long hours in the factory setting, the labor movement eventually gave people the right to limit work to around 8 hours daily. Having people work at 9 am and go home by 5 pm is a reasonable plan, and having multiple industries adopt this plan was crucial since companies have to work in sync with other businesses.
In the traditional setup:
- Employees can only work in the office.
- Workers clock in and go home at the same time each day.
- They are paid by the hour.
- Overtime options are available if more work needs to be completed.
- Employees are not allowed to leave early except in rare cases.
- They only have a limited number of leaves for each year.
The traditional work scheme provides regularity and a strong barrier between work and the rest of the day, which is important for many people. Traditional office work means you should be able to leave work concerns at the office, giving you more headspace for family and personal responsibilities.
However, the rigidness of the traditional setup can work against other people. Being unable to adjust work hours can feel constraining. The inflexibility of this environment also means that time allocation may not be efficient. Busy seasons might see hordes of employees taking overtime, while in more relaxed periods people cannot leave early even if they’re done with their work for the day.
Social Work Environment
Some employers have explored tweaks to the traditional model in light of organizational psychology research. For jobs that require high levels of collaboration, fostering a more social work environment is crucial to productivity and work satisfaction.
This environment takes inspiration from jobs that require people to spend most of their time working with others. Educators and medical staff have to move around constantly and communicate with multiple people throughout the day. In this social work environment, people have more freedom to determine where they go and who they have to talk to, as long as they don’t leave the confines of the workspace.
Social work environments help promote a greater sense of camaraderie and foster collaboration within a more traditional setup. They are great workplaces for extroverts who thrive in high-energy social environments.
For the same reason, more reserved employees might find social work environments too distracting. Not all jobs are also amenable to highly social settings, especially if they require long periods of uninterrupted work.
Flexible Office-Based Work
Flexible work setups represent the first true departure from the traditional office work scheme. They challenge the notion that people should follow the same schedule day by day, week by week.
In flexible work setups, employees are in charge of when they go to the office, subject to some constraints. For instance, some jobs of this type allow staff to work anytime they want at the office, as long as they get to meet the required number of hours each week. Other jobs under this scheme allow people to work at home for a few days each week and stay at the office for the remaining days.
Flexible work gives people control over their time. They are free to adopt optimal schedules based on their body clocks and other personal factors. Of course, having too many choices can also be negative for some people, especially those that are used to more traditional setups.
Learn more about how hybrid work environments influence productivity in our article “Does Hybrid Working Increase Productivity? (According to Research).”
Work from Anywhere Environment
A few decades ago, it would have been unheard of for anyone to consider working outside the office. Nowadays, more companies are offering this setup since employees are increasingly expecting this option to be available.
In work from anywhere schemes, people are free to choose where they work, whether it be at their favorite coffee shop or home. While some tasks like meetings are still synchronous, team members operate on an output-based schedule that doesn’t require fixed hours.
Being able to work from anywhere represents the ultimate flexibility option for employees, empowered to choose when and where to work. This environment is suitable for people who have other responsibilities that take up much of their usual working hours. By being more accessible, a work from anywhere setup also allows more people who otherwise could not go to the office, like persons with disabilities, to remain productive.
However, this setup also breaks down the barriers between work and personal hours. All too often, people who work from anywhere find that their work intrudes into their personal affairs. With insufficient time management, people might find themselves less efficient when working at home, tempting them to continue working even until the late hours of the evening.
Being strategic about this work environment can help people take advantage of its benefits while avoiding its drawbacks.
Read more about this setup through our detailed article “Work From Anywhere Guidelines.”
Options for Workplace Dynamics
Work environment is more than just work schedules and office décor. The psychological atmosphere of a workplace also determines how well you can work and how satisfied you become with your job. Understanding these workplace dynamics will help you avoid conflicts at work and make you more aware of your preferences.
Conservative vs. Exploratory
Some employers embrace the traditional dynamic, especially for more traditional industries such as the legal and financial industries. They espouse traditional work values, such as prioritizing the 9-to-5 schedule and assigning fixed desk spaces for employees. Workforce dynamics also follow the top-down approach of having managers relay instructions down to their employees. Unless you are at a higher position in the hierarchy, it might be difficult for you to get your ideas across and enact change.
Newer workplaces try to challenge this approach by offering a more exploratory environment. These environments are more willing to try work schemes like hybrid, work from anywhere, and open workspaces. They also have flatter structures where both rank-and-file employees and managers can communicate openly and collaborate.
Competitive vs. Collaborative
Some work environments emphasize competition and individual achievement. Working for employers that adopt this workplace dynamic can feel like a never-ending rat race. Employees have to stand out constantly to get rewarded, sometimes leading to toxic behavior against co-workers. Nevertheless, this environment can sometimes appeal to strong and motivated personality types.
In contrast, other workspaces emphasize collaboration. Managers in these settings would try to avoid in-fighting and ensure that benefits are distributed with more equity. In these companies, employees will often have activities that involve teamwork, from annual team-building workshops to daily group huddles.
How do you choose the best working environment for yourself?
The only surefire way is through experience. Work at enough companies and you’ll soon gravitate towards the workplaces that are more able to support your needs. It helps to choose industries known for exploring various work arrangements so that you can experience some of the newer setups, like flexible office setups. You could also try freelancing, which often allows working from anywhere, so that you can experiment with various physical workspaces.
How can you make the most out of your workspace?
Even if conditions are not ideal in your current company, there are many ways to make the most of what you have. Making more connections with fellow employees can help you build a strong social support system. You can also try to customize your desk and introduce variety to your daily routine. As advised by Dr. Bindu Krishnakumar, “You are allowed to carry your own sunshine whatever the conditions.”