Quiz: Is the Design of Your Office Space Making You Happy? Or Driving You Crazy?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day—or quiz day.
This Wednesday: Quiz—is the the design of your office space making you happy?

Of all the books I’ve read in the last few years, few have made a deeper impression on me than A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. This strange, brilliant, fascinating book uses architecture, sociology, psychology, and anthropology to describe the most satisfying architectural environments.

Instead of talking about familiar architectural styles and elements, for example, it focuses on the Sitting Wall, the Front Door Bench, the Child Caves, the Sequence of Sitting Spaces, the Sleeping to the East. I love these! I want them for my own apartment!

Ever since I read this book, I’ve been working my way through everything written by Christopher Alexander. Fascinating stuff.

The book discusses houses, but it also covers commercial spaces and offices. Are you being driven crazy at work by misplaced walls or the wrong kind of noise? Take this quiz to see how your office measures up.

I put a “yes” or “no” after each element, as it applies to my own office.

  • there’s a wall behind you (so no one can sneak up behind you). Yes.
  • there’s a wall to one side (too much openness makes you feel exposed). Yes.
  • there’s no blank wall within 8 feet in front of you (or you have no place to rest your eyes). No, I sit right in front of a wall.
  • you work in at least 60 square feet (or you feel cramped). No; my office is tiny.
  • your workspace is 50-75% enclosed by walls or windows (so you have a feeling of openness). Not exactly sure what this one means.
  • you have a view to the outside (no matter how large your office, you will feel confined in a room without a view). Yes—no nice view, but I can see outside. Having a window is enormously important to me.
  • you are aware of at least 2 other people, but not more than 8 people, around you (less than 2, you feel isolated and ignored; more than 8, you feel like a cog in a machine). No, I’m all alone.
  • you can’t hear workplaces noises that are very different from the kind of noises you make at work (you concentrate better when the people around you are engaged in similar tasks, not very different tasks). No, I can hear other kinds of workplace noises. The building next door to mine is undergoing a lot of construction, so I hear jackhammers, workmen talking, etc.
  • no one is sitting directly opposite you and facing you. No.
  • you can face in different directions at different times. Yes.
  • you can see at least 2 other people, but not more than 4. No.
  • you have at least one co-worker within talking distance. No.
  • to make the space more attractive, incorporate Windows Overlooking Life, a Half-Open Wall, Thick Walls, Open Shelves, Pools of Light (over the workspace), and a nearby Sitting Circle.

Most of us can’t change much about the design of our offices, but these elements at least furnish a few ideas.

My office is very, very small. If I had more room and space, I would love to have a horseshoe-shaped desk, with enormous amounts of surface space, as well as a treadmill desk. Oh, how I long for a treadmill desk! And, of course, Windows Overlooking Life.

How does the design of your workplace measure up? Do you agree with these points?

* I was so excited to see my book featured on CoverSpy, where “a team of publishing nerds hits the subway, streets, parks & bars to find out what New Yorkers are reading now.”

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
NEW! Watch the TV commercial! (crazy, right? a TV commercial!)
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 42,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • stargirl4

    My office is very small as well. I feel secure, but a little cramped. No windows, quite a few people, because it is a newspaper. The noise can be overwhelming at times. This is a neat post, I’ll check out the books. By the way I am really enjoying The Happiness Project book!! I found the blog a long time ago, so I had to wait a really long time for the book and it was well worth the wait.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! I’m so pleased to hear you’re enjoying it. A PATTERN LANGUAGE is
      fascinating, really something brilliant and original.

  • Sidney

    My home office has a half-horseshoe desk, big windows to the East and South, townhouse gardens below to deliver bird songs in the morning and it’s the last room at the end of the aparmtent so no one has to walk through it to get to someplace else. In addtion I have all the latest technology for printing, scanning and computing. NO wonder I prefer to work from home. With classical music playing all day instead of office gossip there’s just no way to compete with it for the perfect office environment.

  • donnamae9

    I can see why the office space makes or breaks the productivity. My desk/office hits all the good points but I am in an area with a constant negative person and a majority of the time I face directly at her and a blank wall. I have been really striving in the happiness project and feeling great but it seems the days that I relapse or feel pressure are the days she is at her worst. I am unsure what to do at this point but have went as far as to request an individual office without success since it isn’t necessary in their eyes for my position.

    • gretchenrubin

      The question of how to insulate yourself from a very negative person is
      something that KEEPS coming up. How do you keep from catching that grim
      outlook? What to do about these happiness leeches?

      Any ideas? What have people tried, that works?

      In some situations, you can end a relationship with such a person — like a
      “toxic friend.” But sometimes it’s not possible just to cut the person out
      of your life.

      What do you do when you’re stuck with Debbie Downer in your office, at home,
      or wherever?

      • donnamae9

        It really gets me to wits end some weeks especially if she is not busy. I have tried to lighten it with good conversation, avoiding conversation and directing the conversation to the person she is complaining about. I have had our boss talk with her since others (customers) can hear but she thinks people are picking on her and it makes the matters worst. So I endure and listen to everyone make comments/jokes to my suffering. I try and take the lesson of how much someones “aura” controls the mood/situation. Which I pay attention more with my family.

        • I’m really sorry for your situation, I can perfectly relate and I know how it can be upsetting.

          In my case, I partially solved the problem with an iPod, but I don’t know if you can do that.
          I’m a graphic designer, and when I used to work in agencies, it was allowed to cut yourself “out” with earplugs.

          Even now that I work at home, with no Debbie Downers in sight, I feel useful to listen to music with my earplugs to better focus on what I’m doing.

          I understand it is not possible to do that, though, if you work with customers…

          Could you put a picture of someone or something you love where you can see it? Maybe that could help you focus on something positive.

          Deep breaths also help me calm down when I feel the urge to kill the person I’m talking to…

          • donnamae9

            Thank you for your thoughts…lots of deep breaths and little breaks.

    • beth

      I was in a similar position, wasn’t able to get away from my own “Debbie Downer”. I hit on the idea of bringing in a fragrance oil burner, using whatever fragrance I felt I needed for that day – lavender for calming, orange/clove for brightening etc. I found that having that wonderful fragrance wafting about me made a huge difference and helped cancel out the negative vibes coming from the other person in the room.

      • donnamae9

        Thank you Beth. I will do that and like the idea of trying the different fragrances.

  • Anoel

    I disagree with the seeing two people. If you’re an introvert, which I am, then seeing nobody is fine. I’m okay with there being other people outside my room but inside I prefer to be alone and not have to worry about others around me. And for proof, I have spent many a 8 hours alone by myself and felt perfectly happy.

  • I work at home. And since I’m an internet marketer all my work is on the computer online. So I often find myself going to the local Star Bucks to work for a couple hours to break up the monotony of my surroundings.

  • I’ve been aware for a while that my home office has been driving me crazy. (The fact that I would rather go almost anywhere than stay home and work was a subtle clue.) Your quiz gives me some great ideas about why. I can’t change some of the factors, and there are a few that don’t really apply to me, but some of the questions really resonate with me and give me some ideas about how to improve my setup.

    • gretchenrubin

      If the list interests you, and especially if you work at home, I really
      encourage you to check out A PATTERN LANGUAGE. Truly, it made me see spaces
      in a completely different way. Very helpful, and very aesthetically

  • This topic really hit hard because my home office (or lack thereof) has prevented me from doing work more than allowed me to do any. Since it really is just the leftover space I get after everyone else in the family has claimed theirs in the house, needless to say it has seriously affected my level of happiness. Your checklist today made that clear. On the plus side, I’ve told my husband that when we renovate the house to enlarge the kitchen, we WILL also find a way to create office space for me. I’ll use your list to help me design it.

    And on a similar vein, have you read Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness? Same principal as the book you’ve mentioned (and that I would love to read).

  • If your office space doesn’t bother you then you must be pretty happy with it. I work at home now so I’m kinda isolated. It can get kinda lonely. But I used to work in an office. There is this huge window behind us. And on the street across us is a hotel where during lunch hour my former boss and his friends would watch out for…never mind. One time we thought someone was going to jump. It’s actually fun to have windows. You dont get to feel so cramp.

  • Michael Yanakiev

    I work at home. I practice a remote job(health reasons), as a consultant and systems analyst . Practically I own an apartment of my own inside the larger one.Since my bedroom is inside, I have serious problems in coping with all these books of mine and print outs that are stealing fresh air,though I always argue with my wife about the fact. I think that she is essentially right, but I can’t force myself to clean up the mess and chaos with which I am used to. My only problem is that my bedroom is practically in the enormous room,and that is not the optimal solution for my help,although I started making my bed every morning as you taught
    me to do.

  • These are some good questions. I work at home too and am thinking about having a location or room JUST for work and that’s it.

  • Joless

    I really hate my working environment. It is a big open space with about 40 people in, a few dividers across the room but I am essentially in the middle of the space where people can walk behind me. It’s not noisy at all but it is very uncomfortably warm all the time, and the lighting is harsh. I have to look past people to see out of the window so I always look like I am scowling at someone!

    I work from home when I can manage it so I can relax a bit.

  • Reading A Pattern Language was a seismic epiphany for me 20 years ago. I have been using the insights of Christopher Alexander in my home and office design consultations ever since then to the delight of my clients. I have recently published a book on home offices using Alexander’s patterns, with an entire chapter on the importance of contact with nature and how to make it happen in the home office. I also encourage people to add personal mementos to their workspace (Pattern 253 Things From Your Life). “A Smarter Home Office: 8 simple steps to increase your income, inspiration and comfort” will be available on Amazon soon. I would love to send you a copy of my book.

  • Angie unduplicated

    Debbie Downer’s ghastly influence can be alleviated with a phone and Bluetooth with good music, or a pair of industrial-strength earplugs well hidden under hair. A subscription to a joke service, and the imagination to turn DD into a long-running satire, also are useful.

    If I can fit a treadmill desk, bed, vanity, and seated desk into a 12′ square room, you should be able to fit that treadmill desk somewhere. Try a folding homemade desk panel which folds into the wall, with great posters on each side, lacquered for waterproofing.

    • donnamae9

      Funny…People have given me earplugs as a joke but they would have to be teeny tiny for her not to notice so I have not used them. We do have a radio that I turn up…she turns down and for a bit it was a battle until I finally gave up. I really struggle with this but try to start my week with humor, although doesn’t always end that way.

  • steve kolander

    Love your blog, Gretchen. Saw you at SxSW and it was great. I’m actually directing a interactive webisode series where an engineer is asking the world community to help him build the perfect office chair/cubicle office. Every 3 weeks he does a video and shows the community what he’s built based on their input.

    It’s interesting seeing what people around the world think makes the perfect work chair/space. Keep up the great positive messaging. 🙂

    Just in case you’re interested in seeing the web series; http://www.letsgodesign.tv.



  • beth

    maybe you can incorporate the following treadmill desk?


    as the fellow says, it is not the most beautiful, but it doesn’t take up much space, and is also not expensive.

    • I never heard of treadmill desks before reading posts here… They are amazing!
      I’m sure I could never use one, but it is awesome how people find ways to involve activities they love in their everyday life.

  • Really thanks for posting this book suggestion, Gretchen!

    I think a lot about how spaces affect our life (my dad is an architect) – among other things.
    We spend a lot of our time at work, and most working spaces are not really friendly!

    I work at home now, as I run my little company with my husband.
    We use one room of our apartment as a studio.
    I painted the walls deep orange and we bought two twin desks from the 30s, to pair with my grandfather old office drawers.

    I like to work in an environment that is not too “technological”, it helps compementing the hi-tech mac computers we use everyday!

    I miss having an “ideas” board to pin on what I find interesting, and I often forgot to look outside the window – I see trees from here and it is really a beautiful view!

    Working at home is bad because I’m often distracted by household activities (laundry, anyone?) but it is also good because there is no commuting time!

    I will check the book, it sounds really interesting!

  • This quiz inspired me to finally change my desk configuration at work! I decided 5 years of people sneaking up behind me was enough, so I moved my computer to the other side of the L. This of course meant cleaning off my desk, which meant going through my files and getting rid of the obsolete ones… and on and on. My desk is much clearer and I feel WAY better. (OK, it’s only been 3 days. But still.) So thanks!

  • Liz L.

    I have been crazy about A PATTERN LANGUAGE ever since THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG recommended it, long ago. I’m curious as to how you discovered it. Love your blog, love your book.

  • Nice information. Its usefulness and significance is overwhelming the way you covered all the basic necessary information is really impressive, good work keep it up.

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  • The environment is important for make you want to work and open your mind to creativity . Thanks for sharing this nice article , I really enjoyed my read 🙂
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  • If our office looks like this, then I might just wanna scream or sleep all day for the environment’s so boring. Even in my dreams, I never imagined myself working in this kind of place, and I know you agree with me, too. I am still lucky enough, because our office space in Charlotte, NC is lively and gorgeous. I can even work all day without getting bored or pissed off.

  • ahmet tayfur

    you work in at least 60 square feet (or you feel cramped). No; my office is tiny.  kosmo disk

  •  Being in an office with a dull design would lead to lame work. If an office is such drab and gloomy, that might affect the work mood of the employees.

  • Taking your time and carefully planning out the style and size of the furniture you need will be a big help, since office furniture can be quite pricey. Recycled furniture looks brand new with a coat of paint. You also need furniture that is functional and ergonomic. You can buy some great looking furniture either at second-hand furniture stores or even places like Target.

  • Stacey Simpson

    For people whose offices are a real disaster, there are many office fit out companies who can transform entire spaces.  Otherwise, try to clear your office space of clutter and papers, leave lots of open space and give yourself plenty of light. So ideally the opposite of the man in that photo!

  • That is really an interesting question if the space in the office is less and you feel uncomfortable in it than that is very irritating and make you crazy. On the other hand if the office is properly maintaining by place good quality of furniture which occupy less space that’s make you happy.

  • whether your office were very small. first is plan and have an idea on it , example think of ideas than how to make the space usable for you and you have comfortable with it.

  • I don’t mind my workspace but I have an empty desk next to me that IT have dumped two computers on so that area looks like becoming a dumping ground!