JITE v36n3 - Workplace Design Compatibility for Today's Aging Worker

Volume 36, Number 3
Spring 1999

Workplace Design Compatibility for Today's Aging Worker

Virginia W. Kupritz
The University of Tennessee


The present study attempts to inform HRD practice about attributes of the physical environment that accommodate the aging diversity in the American workforce. Demographic studies project that the aging population will play a significant role in the diversity of the American workforce (AARP, 1996; Brill, 1993; Hopkins, Nestleroth, & Bolick, 1991). Workers over the age of 55 may exceed the number of new entrants into the workplace within the next decade (Dychtwald, 1990). Research to date has not examined the impact of the physical design of the work place on aging workers; nor has research examined cohort perceptions.

Older and younger learners need a supportive work environment to help bridge the gap between the training environment and the practical work environment. The physical design of the work place is a potential contributor to the transfer of training that, to date, has not been considered in training and development issues. HRD is in the business of improving performance. Training and development, therefore, should not take place in a vacuum for training sake; rather, it needs to occur in a larger organizational context that emphasizes the particular organization's mission and circumstances. This means that prior to setting up the training program, emphasis should be placed on the organization itself, taking into account organizational issues that can impact the ultimate success or failure of the training intervention (Foxon, 1995)1. This includes the physical design of the workplace.

The appropriateness of the physical setting for training transfer needs to be accommodated in training and developing older and younger workers. An unsupportive physical environment can contribute to the failure of what otherwise may be sound training programs. For example, individuals trained to work in teams may not perform effectively when placed back into a physical environment with individual cubicles that do not accommodate team work. Work team effectiveness depends upon the successful management of group-organization boundaries, corresponding territorial control, and a supportive physical environment (Sundstrom & Altman, 1989; Sundstrom, De Meuse, & Futrell, 1990).

A supportive physical environment can contribute to a successful training program. The physical environment is "not just a cost-center, but a benefit producer and a productivity tool that can be more purposively used" (Brill, 1993, p. 33). Sims points out that companies are beginning to recognize the physical environment as an enabler of work processes: "The key is to integrate the physical environment with technology, management practices, and work practices. This allows employees to move where they are needed and to work where they are most productive and will be supported" (Bencivenga, 1998, p. 70). Companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Owens Corning have teamed human resource professionals with design professionals to create work environments conducive to work practices. Jakabuwoski, a workplace strategist at Hewlett-Packard, explains the company's strategy: "When most organizations are designing office spaces, they need to consider their employees--their human resources-and the way those individuals do their jobs; and that means HR professionals are, or should be, included in the office redesign teams from the outset as a matter of successful business strategy" (Bencivenga,1998, p. 69).

Research examining individual, group, and organizational performance documents that work place design can enhance or inhibit overall organizational effectiveness (Brill, Margulis, Konar, & BOSTI, 1984, 1985; Davis, Becker, Duffy, & Sims, 1985; DeMarco & Lister, 1985; Springer, 1982; Vischer, 1996). Based upon experiences since his 1984 and 1985 research, Brill proposes that providing a supportive physical environment can yield a productivity benefit equal to two to five percent annual salary in all job categories. For most American companies, facility-related expenses (i.e., real estate and equipment) represent the second largest organizational asset at about 25% of operating costs, topped only by personnel operating costs at about 38% (Becker & Steele, 1995; Haworth,1995).

The Maturing Workforce

The number of 18-34 year-old Americans has decreased by as much as four million this decade, while the number of older Americans, age 55 and older, has increased approximately twenty-four million (Haworth, 1995). The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) projects that the most rapid increase in population growth will occur between the years 2010 and 2030, when the "baby boom" generation reaches age 65 (1996). The median age of the workforce was approximately 35 years in 1980, 37 years in 1990, and is projected to be approximately 41 years in 2005 (Brill, 1993; Hopkins, Nestleroth, & Bolick, 1991). Not only are demographics projecting age diversity in the workforce, but traditional notions of retirement at age 65 are being replaced by a trend toward longer periods of employment. The percentage of older adults as new hires or re-hires is still low, however, this is a trend to watch as baby boomers reach retirement age. Inflation, increasing health care costs, and inadequate pensions are forcing older adults to remain or re-enter the workforce past the traditional retirement age (Doering, 1990; Hertz, 1995). The desire to be productive through work is another motive for older adults remaining in and/or returning to the workforce (Hale, 1990).

Organizations have raised concerns about the physiological decline of the aging workforce for some time (Ashcraft, 1992; Fox, 1951; Robinson, 1983; Welford, 1976). While laboratory studies indicate some decline in cognitive functions (e.g., cognition, cognitive speed, decision-making, memory, sensory factors, and perceptual-motion), negative effects of this decline appear to be absent from job performance (Salthouse, 1982). Salthouse theorizes that this may be because of the minimal demand level of most on-the-job activities when compared to laboratory tests, and work and life experiences gained from increasing age. For example, Machado and Smith (1996) investigated the impact of certain variables on productivity of work teams (i.e., service order completion) for service technicians at Bell South. Findings determined that the teams at the top ten percent in productivity were older, had much more time on the present job, and much more service with the company than teams at the bottom ten percent in productivity. Research, also, indicates that productivity can decline with age where specific job-tasks or occupations relate to the degree and type of physical effort, such as reaction time and speed of performance (Ashcraft, 1992; Robinson, Coberly, & Paul, 1985; Sheppard, 1976).

Robinson, Coberly, and Paul (1985) reviewed a number of studies on occupational performance with age, concluding that "environmental conditions are important in mitigating the effects of decline in aging workers" (p. 519). Environmental conditions provide the physical context of work place design through barriers and field characteristics. Zeisel (1984) describes barriers as the physical elements that keep people apart or join them together, physically and symbolically, through walls, screens, objects, and partitions. He describes field characteristics as the physical elements that perceptually alter the physical context through shape, size, orientation, lighting, acoustics, and air quality. Ashcraft (1992) proposes that structural changes in work place design may need to be made in order to support the physiological decline that occurs for older workers. While this seems intuitively valid, the impact of design barriers and field characteristics on aging worker performance has not been examined empirically. With the increasing workforce diversity, how to accommodate workplace design needs to facilitate job performance for both older and younger workers, also, warrants empirical examination.

Research Methods

Twenty-four administrators participated in the study, 12 older persons and 12 baby boomers. All 24 administrators are actively involved in their work within the same geographic area. The older persons work for nonprofit service organizations and the baby boomers work for profit and nonprofit service organizations. Work responsibilities and tasks are similar between groups. The 12 older administrators consisted of 2 persons, 60-62 years, and 10 persons within the age range of 64-78 years. The 12 baby boomers consisted of 4 persons, 50-53 years, and 8 persons within the age range of 38-45 years. Even though the AARP now includes ages 50 and older in their research of older persons, the present study did not include ages 50-59 in the sample of older persons. The investigator believed that the sample cohort comparison of workplace design needs probably would be more pronounced by sampling higher age groups, especially in the cohort of 64+ years. (This is due to the physiological changes that occur with increasing age.)

Heuristic elicitation was utilized to interview the 24 administrators. The Heuristic Elicitation Methodology (HEM) is designed to analyze complex issues by exhausting the range of respondent perceptions concerning the variables being examined, to determine beliefs associated with the issues, and to identify interrelationships among the issues. The HEM is a cognitive ethnographic method, rooted in interpretivism. Guided by an interpretivist tradition, the basic assumption of the HEM is that people respond to their environments and decide, based on their environments "how they conceive of them, what they believe about them, how they value them, and what their principles are for using them" (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Harding & Livesay, 1984, p. 75). HEM stimulus materials are respondent generated and data respondent categorized.

Structured interviews were conducted with each administrator over a 30-90 minute period. The structured interview is the first phase of the HEM, called the Domain Definition. This is an open-ended interview in which the language of the respondent is in a series of interlinked questions, with answers recorded verbatim. Previous experience suggests that a large sample is not necessary for the Domain Definition. The interviews reveal the range of items and attributes of a well-defined domain relatively quickly (Harding, 1974; Harding & Livesay, 1984). The HEM consists of several elicitation phases. However, any elicitation phase can be used individually and stand alone as a separate investigation (Harding, 1974). The methodology is predicated upon the idea that "language provides a powerful entry to cultural meaning structures" Harding & Livesay, 1984, p. 75).

The Domain Definition identifies domains through semantic relationships in terms of behavior, artifacts, and knowledge that people have learned or created. A "domain" is a set of categories organized on the basis of a single semantic relationship (e.g., "X" is a kind of "Y"). The research instrument was designed to elicit information primarily about physical features followed by psycho-social features perceived as facilitating and impeding work. These questions illustrate the nature and format of questions used in the Domain Definition for the study:

Q.What are the different kinds of things that you do, or try to do, or try to get done in your office?
[Answers = "X"]

Q.For/when "X", what conditions, or office features, or situations make it easier to conduct "X"?
[Answers = "Y"]

PROBE: What else might make it easier to conduct "X" other than "Y"?

Q.What conditions, or office features, or situations make it harder to conduct "X"?

Q.What kinds of things are important for you to be able to have in your personal office work area?
[Answers= "X"]

PROBE: When, at what times, or in what situations is having "X" important to you?
[Answers = "Y"]

PROBE: When else, other than "Y", would "X" be important for you to have in your personal office work area?

The investigator conducted a domain analysis utilizing content analysis procedures (see Spradley, 1979). This involves sorting through interview responses and identifying patterns, categories, or themes. In the present study each physical item and attribute and psycho-social feature, perceived to facilitate or impede work, was included in a domain category and recorded verbatim. Miles and Huberman (1984) support the concept of displays of information through categories in order to present the information systematically to the investigator. These displays are constructed in tables.

Following the domain analysis, cumulative frequencies for similar types of items and attributes and psycho-social features were calculated to determine how often similar types were elicited. Content analysis procedures, typically, do not compute frequency counts for included terms in a domain category; however, quantifying them allowed the investigator to determine included terms elicited most frequently by respondents and to gain a better understanding about the distribution of beliefs between cohorts. A system of cultural meanings that older and younger workers use to denote and connote physical and some psycho-social features of the workplace was uncovered.


Physical features of the workplace

Older and younger workers do not appear to differ in their overall perceptions about types of physical features that impact work, even with the physiological differences between cohorts. Elicited responses by older and younger workers indicate that similar types of physical items and attributes of the work place are perceived to facilitate work:

[my office] would have up-to-date technology, meaning computer, printer, a good phone system; would have a window; adequate lighting; the computer is vital, I can't imagine doing the job without it; filing space is important, and I've added a larger filing cabinet to my space; books, always books--I keep a supply of reference books; larger desk with more drawers; plenty of office space, four walls and a door; a facility [that's] planned well for groups; being close to the people I work with, personal interaction with coworkers is very important.
[verbatim responses by older workers]

[having] a computer, printer, etc.; computer support; have windows--I can see windows through other spaces, so I can get some environmental clues even though it is an interior office; good lighting; have enough space for all of the office equipment; a place with and for reference materials; have an area set aside just for storage; big desk to spread things around; larger work area; easy access to other cubes for team effort; [being] close to my coworkers, so if I need anything, it is easy to locate different personnel; a separate work space for meetings and interviews that is quiet and multi functional.
[verbatim responses by younger workers]

Elicited responses by older and younger workers also indicate that similar types of physical items and attributes of the work place are perceived to impede work:

my office is too small, office furniture is not adequate; the lack of storage space that makes for a messy appearing office environment; not having the equipment and everything we need to work with; no windows.
[verbatim responses by older workers]

[having] the typical Dilbert cube; multiple people being in one office; [my space is] too small, can't fit everything I need to work with, some stuff is stored elsewhere; too small, not made for us, used to be an old lab, so we don't fit; not enough work office, not enough room for storage, full of office equipment, no windows, etc..
[verbatim responses by younger workers]

Table 1 compares response frequencies for similar types of physical items and attributes perceived to impact work. Cumulative response frequencies for items and attributes elicited less than five times are not included in the table. Physical features mentioned most frequently by both groups as facilitating work are up-to-date information technology; large enough work space; close proximity to conference rooms, equipment, reference materials and supplies; windows, adequate work surface, and being near co-workers. 2 The respondent's individual workspace being too small was mentioned most frequently by both groups as impeding work. As simple frequencies classifying nominal level data, no inferences can be made at this time about the strength of association or the relative weighting of importance for these elicited items and attributes. Another research instrument designed specifically to address these issues is needed so that inferences can be made based upon more powerful statistics. This is discussed in the implication section.

Table 1
Cohort comparison of salient physical features facilitating and impeding work
Domain Category Physical Features (items & attributes) YW OW
Features facilitating work in personal office work area up-to-date information technology (computer equip. & phone lines) 17 25
large enough work space 16 15
windows 8 14
adequate work surface 12 15
adequate references materials & supplies 4 8
flexible work space
(furniture & equip./layout)
8 14
adequate storage 8 8
adequate lighting 6 5
door 8 5
floor-to-ceiling solid walls 3 6
Features facilitating work in more general office surroundings access to computer equipment, other office equipment, reference,materials & supplies 0 5
open space with cubicles, 5'H 5 0
close proximity to conference rooms, computer equipment, other office equipment, reference materials & supplies 13 17
coworkers near each other (i.e., related by work) 9 11
near people supervised 5 0
Features impeding work
in personal office work area
work space too small (crowded conditions) 13 9
inadequate storage 10 2
no windows 4 3
inadequate lighting 5 0
inadequate furniture and equipment 3 2
Features impeding work in more general office surroundings general office surroundings too small 2 10
YW = younger workers; OW = older workers

Ethnographic data and analysis, however, help to explain at least partially, the relevancy of certain physical features to a group's particular situation and could impact some of the extreme frequencies observed between groups in Table 1. During the interviews, many of the older workers expressed the need for more reference materials in their current work spaces, whereas younger workers, for the most part, did not express this need. Inadequate storage was a major concern of younger worker in their current office situation, whereas older workers did not express this concern as often. Finally, many of the older workers occupy cubicles in an open-plan office they perceive as being crowded and small; younger workers, on the other hand, mainly occupy individual private offices that appear to accommodate most of their tasks.

Privacy issues in the workplace

Data analysis also identified salient psycho-social features perceived by older and younger workers as facilitating and impeding work. Psycho-social features elicited most frequently by the workers relate to privacy issues. Responses by older and younger workers indicate that similar privacy features of the work place are perceived to facilitate work:

more need for concentration time with lack of interruptions; 4 walls and a door; no more than 1 door, so that interruptions can be kept to a minimum; avoid interruption; a secretary who takes our calls; avoid outside noise; silence; my family pictures, every time I get frustrated I can look at them, it's a warm fuzzy; individual office with privacy, with space I have control; [personal work space] big enough to meet with as many as 4 to 6 people comfortably, in private; walls to the ceiling; always avoid partial walls; walls safe for private conversations.
[verbatim responses by older workers]

being able to concentrate; I get distracted easily, I need to be isolated; my office is away from traffic, it is secluded; being able to close the door; not being bothered by the phone and the public; no distractions; no walk-in traffic; room to individualize [with] pictures on the wall when you need to spend a lot of time in there; close proximity to work area and conference rooms for meetings [to have] more privacy for support staff; full walls; no cubicles.
[verbatim responses by younger workers]

Responses by older and younger workers also indicate that similar privacy features are perceived to impede work:

distracting noise; the level of noise; voices of surrounding coworkers; being interrupted; interruptions by flow of traffic; having an open door policy; too many walk-ins; if wanted to concentrate, have to work hard to get away from distractions; probably the general crowding; lack of privacy and crowding; hard to talk confidentially. [verbatim responses by older workers]

noisy [office] because it is in the main traffic area; noise level that interferes; ringing telephone; being interrupted by other people; too convenient for people who want to kill time to stop by and kill time; cramped; the sense of being closed in and that you couldn't swing a cat in one office; some of the nature of the work we do should be confidential--it is tough with cubicles--and we have no formal conference area for meetings.
[verbatim responses by younger workers]

Table 2 compares response frequencies for privacy features perceived to impact work. Cumulative response frequencies elicited less than five items are not included in the table. Results indicate that privacy features perceived to impact work are similar overall for both older and younger workers. As stated earlier, some of the extreme frequencies observed between groups may be due to a privacy feature's relevancy to one group's situation; no inferences can be made beyond this at this time.

Table 2
Cohort comparison of salient psycho-social features facilitating and impeding work
Domain Category Psycho-social Features
(privacy terms)
Privacy features facilitating work being able to concentrate silence, being isolated having a door 15 10
having a door 8 5
avoiding interruptions 9 3
avoiding acoustical distractions 7 4
personalizing space & control over space 5 6
having a conference space for confidential meetings (in personal office work area or a room as part of more general office surroundings) 5 5
floor-to-ceiling solid walls for for personal office work area 3 6
open space with cubicles, 5'H 5 0
Privacy features impeding work acoustical distractions 13 16
interruptions 15 9
lack of privacy, including concentration problems 1 12
crowding (in personal office area and general office surroundings) 1 7
lack of confidential spaces for meetings (in personal office work area and conference rooms) 4 3
YW = younger workers; OW = older workers

Uses of the term "privacy" in work environments generally reflect the regulation of interaction, which encompasses retreat from incoming stimulation (generated by people and environmental stimuli) and information management, that is, outgoing information (Sundstrom, 1986). The particular features perceived as facilitating and impeding work, listed in Table 2, are common meanings for privacy found in the privacy literature on work environments. (See Justa & Golan, 1977; Kupritz, in press; Oldham, 1988; O'Neill, 1994; Sundstrom, Herbert, & Brown, 1982; Zalesny & Farace, 1987.) "Being able to concentrate, silence, being isolated, avoiding interruptions, and avoiding acoustical distractions" are examples of regulating incoming stimulation for privacy. "Personalizing space" and "control over space" reflect what Altman (1975) theorizes is the main function of privacy, which is to help maintain a person's self-identity. "Having a door, a conference space for confidential meetings, floor-to-ceiling solid walls for the personal office work area, and an open space with cubicles, 5'-0"H" represent physical barriers used to regulate incoming stimulation and outgoing information for privacy. Privacy features impeding work, listed in Table 2, are indicative of the common complaints about privacy found in the literature.3

Altman (1975) theorizes that the most basic privacy need is to optimize social contact (with both incoming stimulation and outgoing information) and to avoid crowding. Findings from Sundstrom, Town, Brown, Forman, and McGee (1982) suggest that the next need may concern mental concentration and the avoidance of distraction, interruption, and noise. Where neither crowding nor concentration pose problems, autonomy and conversational privacy may become salient as the third need. The present study indicates that age diversity in the workforce does not appear to influence the overall types of physical items and attributes and privacy features perceived as impacting work. Older and younger workers perceive similar types of design features as impacting performance, even with the physiological changes occurring in aging workers. As stated earlier, some of the extreme frequencies observed between groups may be due to the relevancy to one group's particular situation. As simple frequencies, no inferences beyond this can be made at this time.

Implications for HRD

The theoretical considerations presented in the study, though still in their formative stage, provide a beginning knowledge base about workplace design characteristics perceived by older and younger workers to influence worker performance. Pending further research, structural changes to the workplace may not be necessary to accommodate older workers. This potentially can prove cost effective to organizations as they strive to support workforce diversity. The detail gained about cohort perceptions in this initial study warrants a larger study that measures the strength of item and attribute relationships and the relative importance given to workplace characteristics by cohorts. This raises several questions. What weighting of importance do cohorts give to design items and attributes perceived to facilitate work? Does the physiological decline of aging workers impact this weighting? How can the physical design support training transfer from individual to team work, and also accommodate a maturing workforce? In a broader context, these initial findings validate the physical environment as an enabler of work processes that offers an untapped resource for HRD intervention. HRD managers may be able to utilize similar design features to accommodate the training and development of younger and older workers as they practice new ways of working. This includes the physical space needs for training facilities (see Nadler & Nadler, 1989).

Also, the study indicates that privacy is a primary concern for older and younger workers. This supports previous findings for younger to middle-age workers (Kupritz, in press). Age diversity does not seem to influence the particular types of privacy issues perceived as influencing worker performance. Generalizations, however, cannot be made at this time as privacy perceptions may depend upon the relevancy to the particular situation and needs of particular job types (see Justa & Golan, 1977; Kupritz, in press; Sundstrom, et al., 1982). Given this situation, what are the privacy needs for self-managing teams compared to individual work? The physical environment serves as a mediating tool that should not be overlooked in training and development. The reactive or custodial view of workplace design as part of organizational context has been replaced by a more strategic view of the physical environment as a crucial corporate asset, as a tool for achieving both short- and long-term organizational goals (Stokols, 1985). Providing a supportive workplace design for training transfer is an "opportunity to manifest support for the organization's purpose and learning" (Dutton, 1994, p. 469).


Virginia W. Kupritz is the Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Resource Development at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


1.Studies examining the transfer of training report that the percentage of training that actually transfers is extremely low, and that much of it is extinguished over time (Broad & Newstrom, 1992; Georges, 1988; Grabowski, 1983; Kelly, 1982). Organizational issues that have been documented to impact training transfer include management and collegial level of support, availability of resources and technology to support transfer, timeliness of training to try out new learning, training relevance, and potential application of training back on-the-job (Foxon, 1995).

2.Kupritz (in press) identified similar features as facilitating basic job functions for younger to middle-age engineers with administrative/technical duties, in particular, adequate work surface, adequate storage, easy access to reference materials, and close proximity to work groups.

3.Privacy research during the 1970's-1990's reveals that the inability to hold confidential conversations, lack of control over accessibility, the inability to avoid crowding, lack of autonomy over supervision, and distractions and interruptions can contribute to negative effects on job satisfaction (Sundstrom, Burt, & Kamp, 1980).


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Tracy Gilmore