Ever wondered why everyone wears headphones at work?

Why Work?

On average we spend 90,000 hours working, that’s 1/3 of our entire lifespan.

So for many that work in offices, their work environment has the ability to shape their physical, mental and emotional health.

This is a Case Study of a 2-day design project that questions to what extent, and how exactly, office environments impact the wellbeing of those that work within them, in an effort to improve them.

Step 1. Initial Thoughts — What’s an office?

As a career-long freelancer and startup-employee, who has never worked in a ‘traditional office environment,’ the life and habits of office workers have always been a curiosity for me.

Amused as I am to write it, my picture of ‘office life’ has been formed by a combination of the TV show ‘The Office’, listening to fellow Freelancers talk about how they ‘made the leap’ and to Future of Work industry experts talk about how ‘9–5 jobs are unproductive and antiquated’ at conferences.

So, when tasked with selecting a project centred around occupational health, my curiosity about how the ‘other side’ lived and worked, got the better of me and I decided to delve deeper into the shoes of average office working joes to ask myself “What is the office like?”

Step 2. Identifying Assumptions- Working Joe

Early on in the design process, I challenged myself to identify my prejudices and assumptions about what I thought office working was like. Within 5 mins of jotting down my thoughts, I realised that every single one of my assumptions had come indirectly from the ‘battle stories’ of born-again freelancers. Let’s see if you can tell:

  • Unflexible office hours, aka “the 9–5 thing”, affect the health of workers negatively.
  • Stress is the chronic disease of the office working person.
  • Lack of purpose and the desire to seek fulfilment motivate career decisions more than monetary reward, but the traditional office system doesn’t reflect that.

Step 3. Feeler Interviews — Where to start?

With such broad assumptions and so little understanding of the realities of office work, it was difficult to know exactly where to start. So I decided to conduct a couple of ‘feeler interviews’ with traditional office workers, Alex, 24 in Barcelona and Philip, 38 and in Cape Town.

Equipped with a script of questions, I asked them to describe their daily work routine from getting up in the morning to going to sleep on a workday. This threw up a number of interesting lines of enquiry, particularly as they described their break, meeting and lunch patterns.

Eager to explain what they loved and hated about their office spaces, it became clear that the way that their offices had been designed was something they thought about a lot. In Alex’s case, design even convinced him to take the job, whilst in Philip’s, it persuaded him to stay in it.

Alex: “I took this job over the other one because the office has such incredible views and natural light. I love telling people where I work.”

Philip: “Thank god management realised that open-plan wasn’t productive. When they redesigned the office they gave us mini-offices with our own sofas so we could break-out. It was a game changer.”

Step 4. Survey Design — What’s your office like?

Survey Results: What’s your office like?

Armed with insights, but slightly apprehensive towards the prospect of designing a digital solution for what was shaping up as a spatial problem’, I used a ‘Lean Survey Canvas’, a rapid design technique used to ideate effective User Research Surveys, to carefully design and send a survey to other office workers across the globe.

To my surprise, 89% of respondents worked in an ‘open plan’ office space.

To my surprise, 89% of respondents worked in an ‘open plan’ office space, and what’s more, those that did, adopted what I can only describe as a ‘headphone coping mechanism,’ to the distractions of open-plan office space.

71% used headphones when they needed to concentrate, whilst a further 35% regularly moved their position across the office, from the sun to sofas to quiet corners. They tried to adapt the open-plan space to their need for privacy.

Step 5. In-depth interviews — What does it all mean?

My next step was to organise further interviews with office workers from Sweden, Spain and the US. My goal: to listen and observe in an attempt to unearth existing habits and behavioural patterns specifically related to open-plan office experiences and coping mechanisms.

Key interview findings

  1. Open-plan office design is loved for expedient team communications but loathed for its distractions:

“I love the ability to be in the middle of things with my team, and just speak to people whenever I need.”

“Sometimes the office can get too noisy to concentrate. It’s not bad if a few people talk, but if they all start talking, it’s loud.”

2. Headphones are a universal coping mechanism:

“I went to our US office and the entire team was wearing fancy noise-cancelling headphones. It was eery because the effect was dead-silence…”

3. Bosses don’t sit in open-plan spaces, which creates a sensation of surveillance:

“Except for the 2 Directors who have private offices, everyone sits in open-plan. We’re around 400 people in this office, across 6 floors.”

“I used to feel like I was being watched by my boss. He could see my screen, but we couldn’t see his. It was hypocrisy because I could see his screen reflection and he wasn’t working.”

4. Managers enjoy helping their staff but struggle to do their own work amidst all the questions:

“I break the rules and book a meeting room two times a week so that I can concentrate, have privacy, make big decisions and use the whiteboard creatively. It’s a bit like a private office.”

“I have a lot of responsibility and I like helping people, it’s my job, so when it gets too much, I go to the meeting room and everyone knows not to bother me. I’ll tell them to Slack me for anything urgent.”

Step 6. Patterns — Clear behaviours

At last satisfied at the clear patterns that were emerging, I set to work on producing an Affinity Diagram.

At last satisfied at the clear patterns that were emerging, I set to work on producing an Affinity Diagram to organise my thoughts into themes. An Affinity Diagram is a useful method for organising research, data and ideas, it enables researchers and designers to tease out patterns and understand correlating behaviours. It is, like most product design methods, best executed with post-its and more or less looks like this:

Affinity diagram: Distilling ideas from post-its to clear insights.

What I found, was that there is a direct correlation between open-plan office design, the need for quiet places to concentrate and increased stress levels in employees, especially managers.

There is a direct correlation between open-plan office design, the need for quiet places to concentrate and increased stress levels in employees, especially managers.

Managers clearly struggle to balance their desire to help others by answering the questions, with managing their own work. They use a number of different strategies to cope with the distractions of open-plan offices such as headphones, changing desks, and booking meeting rooms to get away.

They clearly suffer from a lack of private space in which they can focus when they are forced to work in open-plan office spaces.

Step 7. Problem Statement and Persona — Who’s Mikke?

With my behavioural insights and patterns, I was able to define a crystal clear Problem Statement. A Problem Statement is a concise description of an issue to be addressed. It identifies the gap between the current (problem) state and desired (goal) state of a process or product.

Managers need a way to have occasional privacy at work because open plan offices distract them from their personal work goals.

From this Problem Statement, I was also able to generate a clear User Persona — a fictional character based on the overlapping characteristics, motivations, goals and problems of those researched and interviewed. This User Persona is designed explicitly to help concentrate my mind on who exactly I am designing for and what is important to them.

So Meet ‘Mikke the Manager’: A busy middle Manager, Mikke works in an office, lives for helping those in his team succeed and keeping his bosses happy.

He is positive, organised and kind, but sometimes the responsibility of managing others and achieving his own goals can leave him stressed and eager to escape.

Mikke the Manager says “I’m happiest when I can help others but I need time for myself too.”

Step 8. Prototype & Testing — Focus and Space…

Drawing upon the insights of my research, ‘Mikke’ and the above Problem Statement, the next step was to dive into sketches with Design Studio’s Crazy 8 ideation technique — a commonly used design method to help designers translate their subconscious ideas onto paper in just 8 minutes.

Crazy 8s design iteration.

As you can see in this sketch initial thoughts were centred around a meeting space booking application with a number of features designed to help my User Persona ‘Mikke’ focus.

From these initial sketches, and with the help of a clear User Flow — a shorthand technique to define the exact interactions a user should take to complete a goal — my first ‘Office-Focus’ App Low-Fidelity Prototype was born. A Low Fidelity Prototype is often paper-based and does not allow user interactions.

Low Fidelity Prototypes enable rapid user testing and iteration on design concepts and ideas. They are often sketchy and incomplete encouraging user testers to give more candid and honest feedback on concepts.

Here you can see the core flow of the app. It invites ‘Mikke’ to ‘find a quiet space in the office’, by booking meeting rooms and setting his office communication channels on ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode or ‘DND’.

1st Paper Prototype: Book a meeting room as your own private office.

Step 9. User Feedback & Iteration — Where am I?

The first 3 Low-Fi Prototype tests concluded that elements of the app’s information architecture were confusing to users. The navigation buttons were unclear and needed improvement as users were not sure how to move from one feature or page to another. Overall the concept was understood as a “meeting room booking app”, which whilst encouraging missed the main purpose of helping managers find space to focus.

The joy of paper prototyping is the speed in which new concepts can be explored and refined, so I quickly took user feedback back to the drawing board to refine the navigation and improve the ‘focus features’ into a final Paper Prototype and test again.

10. Final Design — Drum Roll Please…

In line with the scope of the project, I had been asked to produce a mid-fidelity prototype in Sketch and InVision UX Design tools. With this in mind, I designed a simple black and white Prototype, keeping the UI simple by restricting colours to their explicit function (such as selecting an available office space) and fonts to basic Helvetica. I settled upon calling it the ‘Work Well App’, as I felt this best expressed its purpose.

Core Features: The App enables ‘Mikke’ to search and book meeting rooms within his own office space. It helps him locate available meeting rooms, book-on-demand, in-advance or automatically repeat bookings.

Other features include the ability to automatically block emails and Slack chat notifications for the period of the booking and notify colleagues that users should not be disturbed.

It has been designed specifically to aid the existing behaviours of Managers who sometimes find the stresses of open-plan office spaces too much. You can explore the full prototype for yourself here and leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

It’s worth mentioning that whilst I’m pleased with the results of this project, no design is complete without user testing, so this InVision Prototype is ripe for further testing.

Lessons about the creative process, successes and failure

The ability for designers to separate themselves from their ideas are core to the UX profession so no product design project is complete without reflection upon the process, findings, successes and failures.

Firstly, I enjoyed this project immensely. Not only has it satisfied my curiosity about how ‘the other side live’, but it has vastly increased my empathy levels for office workers, their responsibilities and their dedication to their jobs. They may well be the unsung heroes of the working world.

Secondly, whilst exploring potential problems that office workers were experiencing, I initially shied away from pursuing research related to physical office space, despite the clear indication from interviewees that space was a huge problem for them and the fact that they had developed their own coping mechanisms. I instead forced my questioning to focus on digital problems.

This stemmed from a fear of unnecessarily trying to solve a ‘3D’ problem with a ‘2D’ digital interface. This was misguided, and I’m glad I was able to take the advice of my teachers and peers to take on the challenge, as I’m pleased with the results. In the future, I will be quicker to take opportunities as they arise, no matter how difficult they may seem.

Finally, concept and interface design are far removed from information architecture. Designing App navigation is a discipline for me and I now know that I need to explore this area in more detail, studying navigations and intuitive ways to lay out information. I look forward to the challenge!


Survey Results.

Interview Question Scripts — Feeler Interviews:

  1. Do you work in an office?
  2. Could you walk me through your daily routine going to and from work?
  3. Do you remember your first day at work? If so could you describe something that impacted your wellbeing on that specific day?
  4. Do you use any apps, websites or methods to help you improve [Problem outlined by office worker]?

In-depth Interviews:

  1. Do you work in an office?
  2. How is your office designed?
  3. How would you say you use your office space?
  4. Do you feel that your office space impacts your wellbeing?
  5. Do you use any apps, websites or methods to help you improve [Problem outlined by office worker]?
  6. How do you cope with distraction when you need to concentrate at work?



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Emily Elwes

Emily Elwes


Perpetual nomad and habitual networker. Founding member of Flylancer. Various authors from the community publishing on this channel. @flylancing @emilyelwes