As copywriters, our work takes us to a myriad of working environments – ranging from the open-plan offices favoured by prestigious creative agencies to the columns of cubicles seen in more traditional offices (or dingy closets for those unfortunate enough). Whenever we take on a new job, we are often so focused on the tasks at hand that we neglect to consider the environment and its impact on our productivity for said tasks. Which environment is best suited for writing? Join Wordsmith to find out more…
Open office oppression
Long before there were open-plan layouts, office workers were divided by walls and cramped rooms. 20th century architects like Frank Lloyd Wright saw such layouts as a plight on interior design – claiming that the segregation of people was “downright fascist”.
Rebelling against the norm, Wright designed the Johnson Wax Headquarters in the 1930s that paved way for the open office movement. Inspired by the image of a “forest open to the sky”, gone were the cell-like workstations – and for the first time in history, employees were “liberated” and able to comfortably work in the company of their colleagues. However, what Wright and the other visionary architects had not anticipated was the intervention of opportunistic and capitalistic businesses.
Although revolutionary, these new layouts were considered far too spacious for the original number of employees – businesses saw this as a sign to bring in more staff and pack them as tightly as possible, leading to “long rows of desks occupied by clerks in a white-collar assembly line”. Arguing that workers would be able to better collaborate better and come up with more creative ideas, the revised open office layout replaced Wright’s ideals and became the new norm – that persists even today.
What most businesses fail to realise is that the increased productivity and creativity around open offices is simply a myth. With colleagues seated so closely together, privacy is at a premium – resulting in an information overload for the everyday worker. Contrary to popular belief, these effects are detrimental to productivity, and the inability to focus creates a twofold effect that also burns through employees’ cognitive and emotional resources – thus actually decreasing “their desire to interact and collaborate with others”. Imagine trying to get any work done while Jim and Steve are spoiling the latest episode of Game of Thrones, or the constant pressure of the supervisor seated right beside you!
So why do businesses still advocate for open offices when its inefficiencies at fostering interaction and productivity are so apparent? We have Google and the other Silicon Valley giants to blame. According to Georgetown University computer science professor Calvin Newport, “open offices have become a way to indicate a company’s value to venture capitalists and talent… where the goal is ‘not to improve productivity and collaboration, but to signal that the company [is] doing something interesting.’” It’s not all bad though, and workplace analytics company Humanyze has found open office layouts to be effective at encouraging interactions between teams, such as when coming up with new product ideas… just not within teams when execution-based work (like writing) is necessary.
In the 1950s, German design group Quickborner introduced partitions to bring some privacy back into the workplace, and later in 1964, the office cubicle was perfected by American furniture company Herman Miller. However, businesses took liberty over the design elements once again. Passing over the aspects that designers considered human and keeping only the space-saving ones, employees saw old problems resurface and even new ones as well.
Although a flimsy set of walls are able to keep wandering eyes from prying into your workstation, it does little to nothing for noise-based distractions – regardless how high the partitions may be. Furthermore, what do we see when we are seated in a cubicle? Apart from more cubicles and maybe the elusive water dispenser, not a whole lot.
According to Psychology Today, our ancestors’ wild survival instincts have given us deep-seated desires to “view landscapes, especially when their vantage point is one of refuge” – perhaps explaining our irrational wants for high-rise penthouse apartments, oceanside views and the highly coveted corner office. Unless we’re close by a window, some experts have pointed out that the cubicle layout’s deprivation of natural light will affect our body’s maintenance of serotonin and melatonin levels – affecting mood and sleep regulation. Without sufficient rest, immune systems may also become compromised.
The lack of visual stimulation does little to inspire creativity as well, which unsurprisingly leads to unmotivated performances and even the development of what we like to call the “Wally syndrome” (a character from the comic strip Dilbert who devolved from being a model employee to someone who does the bare minimum – spending all day either slacking off, daydreaming or trying to think of creative ways to exploit his company’s shoddy rules).
If cubicles are equally flawed, how can we expect to get any work done?
Adopting new workplace habits
Most office jobs seem to have adopted a mindset that tethers us to our workstations. Unlike our colleagues in design who need powerful hardware and the latest graphics software, copywriters can get their work done using a barebones laptop. Given this extra degree of mobility, we can technically work from anywhere!
If we crave a bit of human interaction, we could write in the common room or pantry, or if we want some privacy, a secluded corner or the stairwell would be equally useful. Should a laptop not be available, perhaps try writing the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper – there are psychological benefits to doing so – and if you still need to return to your workstation to submit an electronic writeup later, having well thought-out notes on paper is already half the battle against workplace distractions.
Whether at an agency or in-house – full-time or freelancer – the biggest strength of a great copywriter is flexibility. Not just in the ability to write various styles of copy, but being able to circumvent everyday challenges and adapt to different environments.