My Kingdom for a Window

Who gets the window in an office? Whether employees work near windows is often the subject of negotiations and can also have an impact on employees’ health.

I just got back from an appointment with a medical professional. The medical group she works for had just moved its offices.

This was the first time I had been to the new offices. I asked her how she liked her new digs.

Her prior office was a private office with generous sunlight coming in from windows and had an overall welcoming appearance. The new office had no windows, was a rather drab color and was almost claustrophobic. I‘m not sure whether it was smaller than the prior office, but the lack of windows and the color made it appear smaller.

Compared to the prior office, the new office to me, the patient, was almost uncomfortable. Apparently overall, the new space for the medical group was smaller than their previous offices. Was she happy with her new office? There was a clear answer to that question which need not actually be said.

Who Gets the Window?

I have been involved in numerous negotiations where the issue was who gets the window. There has been a tremendous movement away from private offices to cubicles. These changes have started what I call the cubicle wars. How high are the cubicles? When they are higher, it can create a cubicle canyon effect that cuts out light but gives the employees more privacy. When lower, it gives a semblance of access to natural light but reduces privacy.

Who gets to choose first? Those who choose first get to choose cubicles with a window.

Many times, seniority is used. There are at least thirteen different ways to determine seniority. To name a few, you can use service computation date including military service, you can use service computation date without military service, you can use agency seniority, you can use office seniority, or you can use unit seniority. This is all for the purpose of determining who gets the window.

You also have to deal with what happens when someone leaves. Do you shuffle offices right then or do you wait until a predetermined date and then shuffle them? Also, quite often you reduce the number of available windows by reserving a number of them for managers and supervisors. That also becomes a point of contention.

Other cubicle issues include:

  • Does the employee have the choice of where their computer is located?
  • Do employees have a say in what color the cubicles are and what can be placed on the walls of the cubicle?

Once again, I’m just naming a few of the issues that employees may be interested in when it comes to cubicles. 

Office Windows and Health of Employees

Cubicles aside, let’s get back to windows. Researchers at the Interdepartmental Neuroscience program at Northwestern University in Chicago, reported that the detrimental impact of working in a windowless environment is a universal phenomenon. A new study titled, “Impact of Workplace Daylight Exposure on Sleep, Physical Activity, and Quality of Life,” concludes that there is a strong relationship between workplace daylight exposure and office workers’ sleep, activity and quality of life. The research abstract was published in an online supplement of the journal SLEEP.

The study found that compared to workers in offices without windows, those with windows in the workplace received 173% more white light exposure during work hours and slept an average of 46 minutes more per night. Workers without windows reported lower scores than their counterparts on quality of life measures related to physical problems and vitality. They also had poorer outcomes in measures of overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances and daytime dysfunction.

“The extent to which daylight exposure impacts office workers is remarkable,” said study co-author Ivy Cheung, a Neuroscience doctoral candidate at Northwestern University. “Day-shift office workers’ quality of life and sleep may be improved via emphasis on light exposure and lighting levels in current offices as well as in the design of future offices,” said Cheung.

The American Society of Interior Designers found that physical workplace design is one of the top three factors that affects an employee’s performance and job satisfaction. Additionally, a study by the Journal of Public Affairs, Administration and Management discovered that: lighting is the primary factor that affects an employee’s productivity. Both natural and artificial light are necessary to maximize employee productivity.

A study conducted by the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell showed that employees seated within 10 feet of a window reported an 84% decrease in eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision symptoms. 

If windows are so important, why are employers developing work spaces with more employees per square foot but less availability to windows? The simple answer is that it is cheaper to put people into cubicles.

Private office space is more expensive. These moves save the cost of rent by saving square footage but don’t take into account potential loss of productivity. Open space office plans give a version of access to outside light and also allows the employer to put more people in a smaller area. But it is not a universally available work environment and does not totally solve the problem. It creates another problem related to privacy.

Telework and the Pandemic

What is interesting now is that many employees have had access to natural light for over a year now because they have been teleworking. Employers are now going to ask many of them to come back into the office to the same work environment that existed before the pandemic. As was said after World War I: Once they have seen the lights of gay Paree how do you get them back on the farm? Now that employees have had considerable time working in a work environment of their own choosing, how do employers get them back to the same old thing they had before?

Employers are not just going to have to think about how they are going to deal with telework going forward but also how do they make their offices more attractive to employees. The quality of offices may be just as big a draw as salaries with all things being equal. Since telework is much more likely to be a given, how you enhance the office environment when employees are actually in the office may be a draw for some employees. 

Going back to my medical professional, it will be interesting to see when I go back for my next appointment in six months, whether she has adjusted to this new office or whether she’s voted with her feet. She had the idea of having a friend paint a picture of the great outdoors to be placed on one of the walls to give a sense of not being as closed in. I hope it works for her.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.