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6 Inexpensive Ways to Help Employees Escape the Cubicle Crush

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Cubicle culture could be killing worker satisfaction, and in turn, productivity, new evidence suggests.

Open plan cubicle-centric offices don't improve communication or productivity between colleagues -- and reduces overall workplace satisfaction, according to Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, researchers at the University of Sydney. The argument that an open office set-up boosts morale and productivity "appears to have no basis," they wrote. This can have a deleterious effect on innovation and idea generation.

A couple of startups recently came to me for help with making their staffs more innovative. I visited their offices to get a feel for their vibe, and to meet employees, observe and ask questions. In conversations with employees, some expressed frustrations with things that seem inconsequential to productivity and innovation, but really aren't.

When one fellow at a cosmetic startup I was working with complained that he was constantly cold and his neighbor's speakerphone conversations drove him nuts, I almost didn't take note. But as other workers weighed in with similar complaints and others, including a lack of privacy and the annoying whir of office machinery, I knew something was up.

Related: We Asked, You Answered: 10 Workspaces That Get Your Creative Juices Flowing

Their aggravations make sense, according to Kim and de Dear. The researchers discovered that workers in private offices were the most satisfied with their space at work -- and are usually more productive than those putting up with someone else's choice of music in a cubicle situation.

What I recommended to my two fledgling companies, who could not afford to rebuild their spaces, were a few ways to achieve the comfort and peace of mind employees sought -- but on a budget.

Designate a "togetherness" space. Cubicles are neither private nor public -- they are something weirdly in between. An open space indicates its for sharing in a very deliberate way. For group projects, line up tables in the middle of your space so people can easily collaborate.

Allocate me-only rooms. It may be unrealistic to create private offices with doors for every worker. However, you may be able to designate a few private offices where people can escape for a day, a week or even just a few hours to think, work on specific projects, write or plan.

Allow for flextime. I know, I know, Yahoo's Melissa Meyer backtracked on the company's work-at-home program, and I'm not saying productivity or collegiality won't slip in those systems. I'm not talking about sending people home to work full time. Workplace flexibility is important -- especially if you can't offer people privacy for sustained periods in the office. While allowing employees to stay home and work on projects for a defined period of time can be helpful, make sure they achieve the goals that were set beforehand.

Related: What Your Office Design Says About You As a Leader (And It Isn't Pretty)

Encourage mobile offices. Allow employees to work where they want, on the premises or off -- in a coffee shop, the cafeteria, the library and so on. If the work gets done, do you really care where it was done?

Keep it cozy. One of the biggest complaints office workers had in the study was temperature and the frustration feeling cold creates -- including those in private offices. Maintaining an even, consistent 69 degrees might be one of the best things you can do for productivity.

Downplay din. Noise was a major complaint of cubicle workers -- not just chatter but the general sound of an open office. Encourage employees to silence the ringers on their phones (they can respond to its flashing light); keep speaker phone conversations to a minimum; use white noise machines (even a fan can do) to maintain a consistent "invisible" backdrop; and allow the use of noise cancelling headphones -- especially when they are engaged in writing and there is no private escape hatch for them.

We can give people many innovation tools, but if they are uncomfortable in their work spaces, they won't do much good.  

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