Nonprofit office space: We deserve better!

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office-space-06_full1For the past several weeks, VFA has been packing all our stuff and doing other things to move to our new office location. This year, it dawned on me how important work space is. I mean, seriously, we spend like 50% of our time at the office. (In fact, VFA has a fold-out cot, blanket, and pillow that staff could use if they ever need to spend the night in order to get work done.) Like any other nonprofit, we focus on helping people and not getting sued, so we forget just how important physical work space can be, which has led to all sorts of issues and staff complaints like “we don’t get any sunlight” and “these 4×4 cubicles are too small” and “I can’t afford a tetanus shot.” During the winter: “It’s so cold in here, one of the interns is stuck to the metal filing cabinets again,” etc.

Usually, like with other staff complaints, I just ignore it. However, one day I brought my baby son into the office, and suddenly, as a father, I saw things differently. We had no windows, no natural light. It was depressing. Everything was grey: the walls, carpet, cubicles, staff skin complexion, everything. An orchid someone gave us stood sadly wilted in the corner under a flickering florescent light, begging for water or a merciful death. Lingering in the air was the smell of despair, dry-erase markers, and ramen. In the background was the barely audible, high-pitched drilling sound from the dentist’s office next door. And I thought, “This is no place for a baby to be. Ipso facto, it is no place for an adult to be.  Tabula rasa, we need to move. E pluribus unum, I need to polish up on my Latin phrases.”

We nonprofits are trained to be scrappy (here’s a post I wrote on our hoarding tendencies), due to ridiculous and damaging ideas, the main one being “overhead,” whose willful perpetuators have thankfully renounced. Sure, there are dumb nonprofits that spend way too much on office space (and swag items). But most of us are at the other end of the spectrum, working in tight cramped quarters and basements, sitting on a squeaky chair we probably got on Craigslist. If we tip-toe to the edge of having a nicer space, we are afraid funders and clients will think we are extravagant and unscrappy and not putting funding to good use.

A few months ago, I had a meeting at a law firm, and I couldn’t believe how ridiculously nice it was. It had a 180-degree view of the water. The reception counter was marble. There was glass and real wood everywhere. The floor was shiny and clean and made of intricate tiles inlaid with opal shavings, and in the bathroom, you wash your hands with unicorn tears, which are very moisturizing.

OK, I might have exaggerated a little about the opal shavings and the unicorn tears, but the rest of it was true. Successful companies understand that good physical work space leads to happier employees, which leads to more stuff getting done and with better quality. Of course, we are non-profits, so I am not advocating for us to spend lavishly on marble counters and views and Swarovski Crystal business card holders for everyone.

But it should be OK for us to have a decent work space. In fact, it is necessary, according to research. For example, here’s this scientific study. Of course, you’re not going to read that since I blatantly said it was a scientific study, so I’ll just quote the findings:

The prime factor which affects the productivity of employees is lighting in the office. Next to the factor lighting, it is spatial arrangement. Then the importance sequence is noise, furniture and temperature. Both natural and artificial light is very essential in any office environment. It gives a sense of energy and affects the mood of the employees […] Accomplishment of daily tasks in workplaces with less or dim light is difficult for employees. Working in dim light leads to eye strain and thus causing headaches and irritability. Due to this discomfort, productivity is very much affected causing overall decrease in employee’s performance.

We don’t need fancy floor tiles and a conference table made from one vertical slice of a giant Redwood tree, polished and shipped in from California (damn you, you sexy extravagant law firm!). But it is not unreasonable to spend funds on good lighting, pleasing paint colors, comfortable temperature, and furniture where there is no constant fear of rashes. If your office lease is coming up, reevaluate if a better, brighter, safer location may increase productivity. If you’re not moving any time soon, brainstorm things that you can do to increase the physical space. For example, buy some nice plants. Hire contractors to repaint the walls. Buy a water cooler that dispenses cold AND hot water. Hire cleaners to steam-remove that horrible stain in your carpet. Instead of a fold-out cot where staff can crash overnight, get an attractive futon where they can crash overnight. Get a nice area rug. These things are not frivolous, and we in nonprofits must disabuse ourselves of the idea that we must always toil in squalor as we try to make the world better.

After eight years of being squished into windowless, grey-walled quarters that send staff and clients into existential crises each day, I’m happy to announce that this August my organization will be located in Seattle’s Columbia City, in the nation’s most diverse zip code, 98118. We’ll still be squished, with ten staff squeezing into a 600 square-foot open-space arrangement, but at least we’ll have sunlight, and a nice rooftop deck, and we’ll be surrounded by restaurants and shops and a farmer’s market on Wednesdays, and we won’t have to deal with the constant dental drilling sound.

The staff and I can’t wait to move into the new space. The energy there just feels so much better. We’ll get an orchid and put it in indirect sunlight and water it with ice cubes. With so much calmness and serenity, I’m sure we’ll get tons of stuff done, and do a better job at them, too. Eventually, maybe after a year or two, we might even tell our clients about our new location.

  • http://www.eastsidefriendsofseniors.org Claire

    I read this on my lunch break, where I was sitting at a desk from UW Surplus ($10!) in what used to be a storage closet, while the server (and its cooling fan) for the agency roars in the background. I like this idea of moving into brighter and more professional office space, but the church leases us our basement offices for only $400. Where am I going to find light and airy for that sales price?

    • Vu

      Can I move into your basement with you? 400 is a great deal! Wait, no! We deserve better!