The elephant in the room: Status and territoriality in the workplace

April 13, 2018 Samantha Sannella

Before making plans for a new work space, designers must acknowledge human nature—and design with a holistic approach

 

People are territorial by nature. Objects, spaces, relationships, and behavioral roles are areas in which people claim ownership. Territory can help to create social belonging and establish a sense of comfort.

How does this affect life at the office and the creation of workspaces? Before making plans for a new building or facility, designers need to keep several things in mind: territoriality, status, the need for privacy, the value of informal spaces, and the benefit of creating balance.

Let’s explore these elements, and then look at holistic workplace design, a modern approach that helps neutralize issues of status and territoriality. 

 

People are inherently territorial. In the workplace, where people seek to establish organizational order and meaning in work, understanding territorial need is key to creating workplace harmony.

 

Territorial behavior: We are cavemen

Although there are various ways in which people engage in territorial behavior, there are two areas of focus: marking and defending. Marking can be control-oriented or identity-oriented. Examples include hanging a jacket on a chair or putting a framed photo on a desk. You can see references to this in pop culture. WKRP in Cincinnati’s Les Nessman outlined his workstation in tape on the floor. In The Office, two co-workers divided their workstation by inserting a fence made of pencils between them. People are inherently territorial. Territory carries connotations of power, status, and hierarchy. So, in the workplace, where people seek to establish organizational order and meaning in work, understanding territorial need is key to creating workplace harmony. 

Territory can be defined by individual workstations, team areas, and by neighborhoods. It can also be fostered by items that can be controlled by employees, such as lockers, file drawers, or personal desk accessories. It can also be controlled by teams, such as bulletin boards, community spaces, and lounges. Respecting the human need for territory and providing layers of control for individuals is critical in developing a successful workplace design. 

 

_q_tweetable:Social hierarchy guides many species, and humans are no different._q_

Status, pay grades, and desk size

Social hierarchy guides many species, and humans are no different.

The image of a successful boss in a corner office is a commonplace media icon. When organizations stamp pay grades and levels on employees to make managing them easier, they declare a hierarchy that carries organizational meaning into everyday work lives. When desk sizes are based on pay grades, it may make it easier for organizations that remain relatively stagnant to shuffle folks. But when rapid growth occurs, it can cause chaos with planning and design—especially when closed offices are the norm for the folks at the top of the pyramid. 

 

Desperately seeking privacy

In open office environments, it is critical that designers understand the need for privacy and provide spaces where individuals can go for focused work, creative expression, or personal moments. In office environments where capacity is at its maximum, these types of spaces get pilfered and reappropriated as full-time work environments. Organizations do this at their peril. Because, when the need for privacy is marginalized, employees become uneasy in their work environment and productivity is affected.

 

There are five main ingredients in the recipe for holistic workplace design: productive, healthy, social, efficient, and responsive.

 

Informal spaces and their value to organizations

Collaborative work environments are at the core of the modern office. Organizations who are collaborative are also more innovative. Brainstorming brings forward the best ideas and strengthens interpersonal relationships between employees, which makes organizations stronger and more robust. Collaboration between departments provides for more transparency and often results in a more efficient use of resources. 

While digital collaboration is critical, nothing beats face-to-face collaboration fostered by a wide variety of work settings. Beyond meeting rooms, employees benefit from lounges, coffee bars, decompression areas, and places that foster physical activity. Essentially, learning and sharing occurs best when it can be nurtured in different ways: visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, and solitary. Good workspace design accommodates all seven.

 

Creating balance in the workplace

A great workplace provides a combination of spaces that accommodate both focused work and collaborative work. Modern work environments should not default to monotonous seas of hoteling touch-down workstations to maximize capacity and save real estate dollars.

Careful thought and planning should go into developing future goals and aspirations. Aligning the business objectives to the workplace plan to drive innovation, productivity, and employee health and happiness should be the first exercise in any workplace re-design. By balancing a variety of space types and projecting the appropriate image with visual cues, workplace design becomes an active part in making an organization successful. 

 

When designing for productivity, we must evaluate activity-based work settings, public/private zoning, territoriality, mobility, and the continuum of work habits.

 

Solution: Holistic workplace design

There are five main ingredients in the recipe for holistic workplace design: productive, healthy, social, efficient, and responsive. Each of these categories offer distinct ways of setting goals and measuring successes. It is an established approach that allows us to ask the right questions and predict outcomes with measurable success.

For example, when designing for productivity, we must evaluate activity-based work settings, public/private zoning, territoriality, mobility, and the continuum of work habits. In establishing a healthy workplace, a thorough analysis of individual and group needs must be performed while integrating sustainable, ergonomic, biophilic, and wellness-focused initiatives. A social workplace must promote learning and collaboration while making spaces inspirational and aspirational. Efficient workspaces are streamlined and optimized to align to business objectives, occupancy scenarios, and utilization strategies. Responsive workspace design recognizes that organizations are living and constantly changing—so the work environment should be able to adapt to suit new needs. By future proofing—a.k.a. designing with an eye on the future—as much as possible, we can provide flexibility, save valuable dollars, and provide a great workplace that serves as a catalyst for organizational and business success.

 

The big challenge

As designers, questioning territory and ownership of personal work space is a difficult conversation to have with clients. Reducing workstation footprints or transitioning from a traditional enclosed office to a highly collaborative open work space can be a shock to organizations. We must understand that it is not the sole purview of the designer to offer these ideas, but rather an approach that aligns with a robust change management strategy. Ultimately, overall employee satisfaction is at risk and the stakes can be high, but a thoughtful workplace design can also bring immeasurable rewards.

 

About the Author

Samantha Sannella

With a background in design and architecture, Samantha Sannella is a studio director and work strategy expert working with the team in our Toronto office. From working on museums, to healthcare and education, she’s passionate about doing work that contributes to the greater good—projects that serve the community really touch her soul.

More Content by Samantha Sannella
Previous Article
From ancillary to essential: Technology’s new role in the healthcare experience (Part 2)
From ancillary to essential: Technology’s new role in the healthcare experience (Part 2)

To meet hospital user expectations, the ability to anticipate and adapt to ever-changing technology needs i...

Next Article
Redefining mobility: What does the future look like?
Redefining mobility: What does the future look like?

Getting out of single-occupancy vehicles and seamlessly connecting shared travel modes will increase equity...