An interview with environmental psychologist Jakub Franc, who is also in charge of a team of UX designers in one of the best Czech startups. An interview about scents in offices, about the need to have one’s own territory in an open-space office and about when people can get lost in the workplace. An interview about the soul inside office walls.
You currently work, and actually also used to work, in a technological firm. Technological firms are generally perceived as leaders in what modern offices should look like. Whether they are progressive startups or established firms such as Microsoft or Amazon, they all boast “cool” offices. Why technological firms and not banks, insurance companies or telecommunication operators?
Technological firms have a very limited labor market and yet individual people provide a high added value. Banks are stuck in a rut, but if you fall behind in IT by a year or two, it is over for you. IT people are picky and have different values. They do not care only about salary but also about other aspects of their life, and a good or unique office helps in hiring employees. This is why technological firms now often hold different meetups or meetings with professionals in their offices to show them off.
Is it one of those soft benefits to win potential employees over?
It also stems from the nature of the entire industry that focuses on innovations. IT firms search for ways of doing things differently. This it then reflected in all areas. On the other hand, banks are simply conservative institutions. I am not sure if I would appreciate my banker going down a slide to get from one floor to another... But there are exceptions even among banks that use their brand to distinguish themselves. A brand is not only about how a firm is perceived on the outside but also what its internal values are or even which scents its stores use.
Speaking of scents, isn’t this sensory input neglected with respect to offices? People often talk about the amount of light or suitable colors in the interior, yet odorant receptors are also important.
There are firms that have spent many years on this matter. Scents are often used in stores and in merchandise packaging so that you could smell an interesting fragrance once you open the package with the purchased product. I read about some universal perfume for office spaces that would reduce stress or would help people concentrate better. I am not saying that I am totally skeptical about this, but I think that if this were the case, such scents would be installed in every office by now. The problem is that people like different smells. The US army was actually developing a stink bomb with a stench so repulsive that it would disperse people. However, they could not find a single stench that everybody would find repulsive.
TO THE MEETING ROOM ON A SCOOTER
Let’s drop this stinky topic and return to offices. What about you? Did you take into consideration the interior of the office in Karlín when applying for a job with GoodData?
No, it was not important for me. There were in fact other things that I liked about the firm. I saw this office for the first time when I came to sign my employment contract.
And now after almost two years of working in the firm, do you see something unique in the firm that you have not experienced or found in other firms?
We work in open spaces, which I do not like very much, but the firm provides people with a certain feeling of privacy. There are a lot of meeting rooms where one can take shelter. There are bean bags on the floor and so if we no longer want to sit at the desk, we can take our laptop and sit in bean bags. We can also personalize the common area. Its walls have boards or paintings that we can finish. Overall, I find our office playful and very informal, which - in my opinion – shows what kind of firm we are.
Actually, while we were talking, I saw your colleague pass by twice on a scooter…
This is exactly what I find humorous. We need scooters to get quickly from one end of the office to the other. A scooter can save several minutes. Two corridors meet at a very sharp angle and so we actually had to install there a convex mirror just like at intersections so that people would not run into each other.
LOST IN THE OFFICE BUILDING
The administration building Danube House where you work is also special in its non-typical triangular floor plan. Does it change the perception of the interior?
It is very hard to create a mental model of the environment in this building; people get lost in it. This is why we have navigation lines on the walls, because people are naturally used to a rectangular, regular or grid system. It takes a while for a newcomer to get used to our different floor plan.
Don’t you think that the building is ill-designed in this respect?
The readability of buildings and the ability to navigate in them is one of the big topics of environmental psychology. There are certain principles that can serve as guidelines. If we know a part of a building, we can guess what the other part looks like. This, however, does not work in our building. On the other hand, I do not think that it bothers the firm if a new employee gets lost here sometimes. The irregular shape actually gives us an aesthetical advantage – our offices have lots of windows.
Your doctoral thesis was actually about the movement of people inside buildings, focusing on the psychological aspects of navigation of blind people. Why did you choose this topic?
I always liked to combine the digital world with the physical one. Moreover, I tried to include something else in my thesis, some social aspect. Thanks to my thesis, I was able to participate in the research project Naviterier at the Czech Technical University in Prague. As a psychologist, I found it very interesting that a blind person has a completely different way of navigating and creating a mental model of the environment and uses completely different cognitive strategies.
Could you explain it to me, since I am not a psychologist?
To say it simply….. if I am in some complicated building and I need to find my bearings, I will use an aerial view. It will help me to deduce where I am, and I will get a much different sense of the relationship between the individual places that I walked through. Blind people use different strategies, in particular a sequential strategy. As they move around a building, they remember the way based on other things than we do. Tactile and audio cues are much more important for them.
A DESK BY A WINDOW AS A REWARD
In one of your previous answers, you mentioned windows and daylight as a benefit. For instance, window seats in public means of transport are maybe subconsciously perceived as better. Does a similar hierarchy exist in offices as well? Is it true that the closer to the window a place is, the better it is?
When I visited Microsoft in Redmond, several years ago, I discovered that an employee was entitled to a desk by a window after 10 years in the firm. It was a status matter. Actually, according to some research studies, people who work close to a window and are exposed to natural sunlight are more productive, more satisfied at work and less sick.
The concept of hot desking contradicts the status perception of a desk by a window. Hot desking means that people do not have their own personal desk and choose their work station after they arrive to work. Is this wrong from a psychological point of view?
I would not say it is wrong. Certain human needs may not be satisfied, but the question is how much these needs are important for specific people in a specific situation. On the other hand, it may satisfy other needs and so I cannot say whether it is good or bad. I would need to talk with these people, to watch them and to get them to participate in the design of this environment.
Let’s imagine a specific situation: a big firm will move into new premises. How should the company management get the employees involved in the office design? Should all employees receive a questionnaire to find out whether they prefer carpet or a billiard table?
I would discourage the firm from doing this. According to Margaret Mead (an American cultural anthropologist - author’s note), people have a hard time to describe what they do, what they want and what they need. We must get this information indirectly. Moreover, the design of new offices is not only about the people but also about the needs of the firm that needs something from the people and knows how it will operate in the future.
Instead of giving people a questionnaire, I would watch them, talk to them and try to find out what type of work they do and what their work duties are. I would like to know about relationships at work, how people’s relationships and interactions contribute to their overall performance and what does not work and what actually works well. I would like to know whether they are satisfied overall and whether they identify with the firm. It is necessary to discuss this in depth and it is definitely a job for a psychologist.
Questionnaires often lead to a blind alley. Imagine that people tell you that they prefer to have carpet in their office rather than linoleum. But why? Is it because they like carpet or is it because they find the office too noisy and want to reduce the noise? If it is about noise, there are other and more effective solutions than carpet.
Do you think that there is some universal ideal office model that suits everybody?
I really do not think so. Look at it from the perspective of the company management trying to decide what the new premises should look like. Do I need people to talk to each other? To concentrate on some cognitive tasks? To supervise them? Or do I want a more democratic management? This is what determines the floor plan design, i.e. whether to have people working in some closed offices or in a giant open space…
... or whether they could create their own micro world in an open space?
Look around our office – everybody has his or her own desk. Some people have a plant on it, others their children’s photos or a nerf foam dart pistol; some people have a nice clean desk, while others a messy one. In designing a common space, it is important to make sure that everybody can create and personalize his or her own private space. A workplace is considered a so-called secondary territory, and so we must take into account our territoriality as well. This is something we inherited and we cannot close our eyes to it. Again, there is no universal guideline – everybody and even every generation has different needs and different ways to protect his or her territory. I know firms that did not let their employees personalize their workspace. Sometimes it is impossible and understandable, e.g. if employees have clients come to their desk or if the building design is so unique that anything personal would compromise it. All these things should be decided on before a new office is designed.
Could firms benefit from this approach in the form of higher employee performance?
A firm constructs an office building with a useful life of 40 years. According to one study, acquisition costs represent approximately 2 to 3% of the total wages and operation costs that the firm will incur over 40 years. That 2 to 3% affects all the other costs. Therefore, it pays off to find out what people will do in the new offices and what their needs are. It will pay off for the firm because people will be willing to work harder and longer hours, will not quit…
IN SEARCH OF COMPANY HAPPINESS
You studied cognitive psychology and you also work as a psychotherapist. Should psychological consultations become one of the benefits offered by modern firms?
Actually, I also played the role of a psychologist in the firms where I used to work, without actively seeking it. So, there is some demand for it. On the other hand, I now work in an IT firm and I know that many of my colleagues would not seek this service and would be actually annoyed by it, and this is why I would not offer it as a company benefit. People could be worried about confidentiality.
Many firms nowadays create the position of chief happiness officer, who is to ensure emotional well-being at work. Can a work team really benefit from this position?
The position of chief happiness officer can be very beneficial, but its corporate concept can have a nasty kickback. I agree that employees’ happiness is important and helps to improve their performance. However, the correlation between happiness and performance is rather complicated and not linear. There are many factors that affect people’s happiness at work. For instance, job stability. People wonder if they will keep their job. Relationships between colleagues and whether a person’s work is meaningful are also important. I am afraid that the happiness officer has no control over these factors.
And in the end, what is your opinion on what offices will look like in ten years?
Hot desking, more flexible offices and open-space offices represent the current trend. Will this trend continue? Or will it take a different direction? I do not know. Will firms operate in 10 years the way they do nowadays? Will they be affected by the fact that people meet or sit in one space? And what about autonomous cars and a higher mobility of the workforce? Will we go to work more or less? All this makes me think about big sci-fi, including green guys with laser pistols, jumping around offices…