The desks jammed tightly together in one busy Washington office, complain employes, makes confidential phone calls an impossibility. Like it or not, they can eavesdrop on colleagues' sometimes-escalating domestic crises. o

But what can be an annoying distraction sometimes brightens up a routine day. They recall with a smile the weeks they spent listening in on a new worker who used her coffee and lunch breaks negotiating to buy a new home.

In a year of office gossip, they never could have found out as much about her private life and finances as she revealed in heated and loud disputes with real estate agents, mortgage companies, moving firms, her husband and children.

Most of the time she appeared oblivious to the havoc she was creating. Typewriters ceased clacking and pens halted in mid-sentence while she and her husband debated their ability to afford the downpayment. But then she would spot all of the faces turned in her direction and realize how far her voice was carrying.

At that point, she didn't, as one might expect, lower it to an embarrassed whisper. She kept right on at the same decibel -- in Hebrew.

A lot of office workers, say experts who have studied the problem, have complaints about the places where they spend a good part of their lives:

Their offices are too crowded, too noisy, too cold, too hot. The lighting is too dim or too bright. They bump hips or shins on sharp-edged furniture. Their chairs are uncomfortable. They don't have enough filing space. They lack the equipment -- or it is inconveniently located -- they think they need to do their jobs properly.

But help, at least for many, is on the way. It's coming in the form of unusual new features that some firms are adding such as gymnasiums, saunas and -- for at least one Georgetown law office -- showers for lunchtime joggers on the C & O Canal. And it's coming in the form of growing employer interest in how office design affects a worker's satisfaction and productivity. i

Office design, say the experts, can play a big role in how happy a worker is on the job.An arrangement regarded as stressful, harmful or otherwise unpleasant can lead to such costly management problems as excessive sick leave, high absentee rate or frequent employe turnover.

"Suppose," says Alexandria environmental psychologist H. McIlvaine Parsons, "you're a key-punch operator and you have a chair at a bad height. The result may be you'll spend more time going to smoke a cigarette or to get coffee or go to the john because you want to get away from that fatiguing operation. If some place is very noisy, you might do the same.

"Because working hard requires a good deal of effort, if the body already is being strained, you'll reduce the total strain by reducing your work level." i

And though the evidence isn't all in yet, some experts believe that studies will show that the happy worker is a more productive one. In an age when more than 40 percent of the nation's labor force goes to the office, office productivity is gaining increasing attention.

One important find, says Rick Hendricks, until recently office space manager for the General Services Administration and now with the huge Herman Miller office furniture firm, is that it pays a company to check with its employes before redesigning their office or moving to a new one.

"The more you involve the user, the more you work with people," says Hendricks, who for eight years kept an eye on office arrangements at 23,000 federal facilities nationwide, "the more satisfaction there will be. It's important to them. If they feel it's being rammed down their throats, they won't accept it."

Though the size of the office work-force has exploded, says John R. Adams, assistant director of the Facility Management Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., up until recently "the physical management of paper and the arrangement of the office to make work more effective has been a corporate blindspot. Historically, the environment was viewed as a cost, but never as anything that had a benefit."

Now, says Adams, whose institute trains people to run large offices efficiently, more and more managers are paying "serious attention" to how office design can help office workers do their jobs. "We're seeing more attention paid to the workplace as a benefit contributing to worker satisfaction."

One of the biggest studies of the office under way is a two-year look at 10,000 workers in 100 offices funded by the GSA and a number of large U.S. corporations. It is being conducted by the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (BOSTI), a research group. Midway in the project, "We're finding," says BOSTI president Michael J. Brill, "that job satisfaction has a powerful impact on absenteeism and turnover."

Most of the country's paperwork gets handled in one of four kinds of offices.

Traditional private office -- favored by lawyers and executives who like the solid floor-to-ceiling walls and a door that can be shut.

Bullpen -- secretaries and other clerical staff sit in rows of adjoining desks.

Open or landscaped -- popularized both in government and private business in the late '60s and early '70s. The idea was to put everybody (or almost everybody) in the dame eye-appealing room, but still separating groups according to their tasks by movable partitions and plants.

The selling argument here was that rearranging offices became easier and cheaper when you didn't have to tear down walls, and it provided better office interaction.

But, say office designers and environmental psychologists, the landscaped office has its faults. Though clerical workers tend to favor the new design over the bullpen -- and in one study employes praised it as more sociable -- other workers complain about the room's noise or distractions from the flow of people passing their desks. Managers miss the status conferred by a private office, as well as privacy for handling touchy personnel matters.

Often employers prohibited workers from posting family pictures, or otherwise personalizing work areas, because they felt it would detract from the office appearance. And, says Brill, the open office led to a surge in what he calls "the idiot salutation. People pass by and feel compelled to say, 'How ya doing?'"

The open office, says Brill, also was used to "sardine-can people" to save space. "As you put in more machines and people, that increases noise and visual distraction."

Systems office -- newest variation on the open plan. Staffers are still grouped together according to tasks, but flexible partitions are arranged to provide a sense of greater privacy. The work space is designed specifically to meet demands of the task.

Another advantage, says James Whitlock, the GSA's assistant commissioner for space management, is that they systems office uses vertical space -- filing systems incorporated into the partitions, for example -- to cut back on costly floor space. He sees the federal bureaucracy gradually moving to the systems office.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) adopted the systems design in the mid '70s to help overcome the clutter and confusion of an outmoded office he saw as hampering his staff's efforts. Other members of Congress have toured the office, says Hatfield assistant Jeff Arnold, "to get a feel for what we've done," including "all the new GOP senators."

Subsequently, adds Elliott Carroll, administrative assistant to the architect of the Capitol, eight other Senate offices were outfitted with systems furniture to see the effects on worker "productivity and morale." His office expects to recommend its use in the new Hart office building when it opens in 1983.

To illustrate the importance of the office environment, BOSTI's Brill offers this lesson in economics:

"If you say an office building is really part of an information system that brings people and machinery together, look at the cost of that system over a 25-year period. Only 2 percent is the cost of the building, equipment and furniture; 6 percent is energy and maintenance; and 92 percent is what you're paying your people.

"M'god, if there's a relationship between the physical environment and productivity, look at the impact the 2 percent has on the 92 percent."

Instead of trying to shave costs on that original 2 percent investment, he suggests, "maybe the goal is to develop a more supportive environment for that 92 percent."