Office Conditions Leave Room for Improvement

Feb. 25, 2008
Employee loyalty is won or lost over the cleanliness of the bathrooms and the amount of sticky goo on the carpet

By Molly Selvin, Los Angeles Times staff writer

Forget salaries, expense accounts, or keys to the executive washroom. Employee loyalty is won or lost over the cleanliness of the bathrooms and the amount of sticky goo on the carpet. One in three workers surveyed recently said they had accepted a job - or quit one - because of the most basic working conditions. The respondents' chief complaint by far: the state of the indoor atmosphere (the gripes being about either hot-as-the-tropics heating or Antarctic air-conditioning).

Corporate managers searching for new office space think mostly about rent and whether the layout and location will work for their companies, says Johnny Winton, president of Coral Gables, FL-based Blumberg Capital Partners, which commissioned the survey. "They're not really thinking ... 'Will my employees be OK working in this environment?' "

Julie Buckner knows what Winton is talking about. The 40-year-old Valley Village resident is a veteran of what she dubbed "the office temperature wars."

"I always run hot," she says, recalling how she tricked her coworkers at several local public relations firms by surreptitiously powering up the air-conditioner.

When her officemates began to shiver, she says, "My M.O. was to tell them, 'You must just be imagining that it's getting colder.' "

Buckner now runs a consulting firm from her guest house, favoring an office decor that includes candles and cut roses. She has one employee, but Buckner's hand rules the thermostat, generally keeping it at 64 to 68 degrees.

Blumberg's survey of 500 workers was the first of its kind, Winton says. The company develops and manages high-end commercial office buildings in Florida and Texas. "We thought that the office building itself could have some major play" in an employer's ability to attract and keep workers, Winton says.     

Apparently it does. More than three-quarters of those polled in December said the overall condition of their offices affected how they viewed their employer and whether they were likely to stay in their jobs. And, 30 percent said they worried that unhealthy or unsafe conditions in their building might make them sick.

A worker's focus on disagreeable office conditions may be more a symptom of a larger problem than the sole cause for a defection, says Amy Lyman, cofounder of the Great Place to Work Institute, a San Francisco-based consulting company. People don't quit just because the bathrooms are dirty, she says, but because employers that don't keep the bathrooms clean don't respond to other worker concerns as well. The bathroom message is that "these are not high-trust environments," she says.

Apart from extreme temperatures, filthy bathrooms were among the most commonly cited problems in the survey, along with outdated furniture or decor, persistent foul smells, leaky ceilings or windows, worn carpet, and rodents or insects.

For employees of some companies, such as Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc., the office is a sprawling complex with manicured outdoor areas, cafeterias with extensive menus, light and airy working spaces, sports complexes, daycare, and more. Winton says the survey results should encourage other companies to follow suit - or at least pay more attention to the basics. Like vermin. Buckner has few fond memories of the down-at-the-heels San Francisco building where she worked in 1996. Much of the building was vacant, or so she thought, until she heard rats scurrying above the acoustic ceiling tiles.     

"The tiles were always slightly askew," she recalls, "and every once in a while you could see their feet or tails come through." Her first rat sighting was quite alarming, she says, "but like all things, you get used to it."

Until you can find another job.

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