Forget the Recession—I Want a Better Chair

Office workers may want improved conditions, but experts say other factors are still key.

Google's goal is ''to strip away everything that gets in our employees' way.''

Google's goal is ''to strip away everything that gets in our employees' way.''

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Large-scale layoffs were up in March from a year ago, a fact that could have many workers fretting about their job security. But some are apparently focused on less extreme problems, like the shoddy artwork in their office hallways.

Blumberg Capital Partners, a real estate investment firm, surveyed U.S. office workers and reports they have a wide variety of complaints about their office conditions, from "It's so boring, all blah colors, no fun" to "The lighting is very harsh and causes eyestrain and migraines."

Certainly, complaints about dirty rugs and leaking roofs make sense, but if some requests sound frivolous ("free popcorn," for example), Blumberg says that the overall results confirm that office conditions have a direct effect on employee retention, recruitment, and productivity. Blumberg reported in January that one third of office workers said they had accepted or left a job based on the condition or amenities of the building where they worked.

That's big news for companies concerned with retaining talented workers.

But Rich Wellins, senior vice president at human resources consulting firm Development Dimensions International, is skeptical that office environments have such a significant effect on employment decisions.

"I would just bet my annual salary that people would not list, as one of their top three reasons, the physical office environment as a reason for leaving," Wellins says. "I just think there are other factors that are far more important in retention than a physical office, up to a certain point."

Employers may need to meet a minimal level of office comfort and space, Wellins says, but there are well-known companies, like Costco and Wal-Mart, that make a conscious effort to keep office expenses and frills to a minimum and still have solid retention rates.

Another recent survey by Robert Half Technology, an information-technology staffing firm, seems to support Wellins's opinion. The survey of 1,400 chief information officers found that their most effective method of holding on to staff is increased compensation, followed by professional development or training and flexible work schedules. The survey respondents also cited telecommuting, extra vacation time, and company stock or options as retention tools. Office conditions were not on the list.

For sure, some companies have made their working environments a recruitment tool. Employers like Google, where employees at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters can munch free gourmet meals or visit a massage therapist, have put office perks front and center in the recruitment process. Google CEO Eric Schmidt says on Google's corporate benefits page that the company's goal is "to strip away everything that gets in our employees' way."

Wellins says that Google's many office perks may make sense in its particular field, because the company faces a tight labor market for software engineers. Other companies, like Best Buy, have had success by allowing employees to maintain flexible work schedules. But as far as massages go, "I'm not sure companies necessarily need to go to that extreme to retain employees," Wellins says.

Basic improvements to the physical space may benefit a company's bottom line. Research suggests office conditions like lighting and temperature affect employee productivity. Researchers at the Leeds Institute of Psychological Sciences recently reported finding that short bursts of very bright light may trick the brain into alertness in the afternoon.

Office temperature also seems to make a difference. In a 2004 study, Cornell University Prof. Alan Hedge found that a thermostat increase from 68 degrees to 77 degrees resulted in a 44 percent decrease in typing mistakes and a 150 percent increase in typing output. Two subsequent studies have borne very similar results, Hedge says. "We feel fairly confident that when people are working in conditions where they're pretty close to thermal comfort, their computer-work performance is improved," he says.

But for companies looking to hang on to talent, office contentment may have the most to do with people. Brock Boyd, president and CEO of Career Management Inc., a Vienna, Va., search firm, says the first question his firm asks candidates is "What's the main thing driving you to look around?"