Productivity doesn’t just come from within.
People draw motivation and inspiration from their environment, consciously or not. Designing an office that influences people to work better and more efficiently is about recognizing the science behind what makes us tick and incorporating that into the look, feel, and even smell of the workplace.
This makes sense at a very basic level: For most of us, it’s more pleasant to be in a comfortable, attractive, fun environment than in a claustrophobic, sterile, unnatural setting. Research shows that inhabitants of more scenic environments (both rural and urban) are healthier and happier—and happy, healthy workers are better workers.
But what does it mean to have a scenic work environment? Not everyone can have an office that looks out over the ocean, or a board room with views of epic skylines. How can businesses all over the world engender reduced stress, active lifestyles, and other factors that lead to good work?
Here are a few fun, inventive, and thought-provoking ways to alter your office space that can help improve turnaround times, foster team cohesion, and overall create a more productive business.
There are many theories, myths, and preconceptions about how the color of a room affects how we feel in it (for example, some believe a room painted red literally feels warmer than a blue one, so it requires less heating). Not all of it holds water, but research does show that the color of a room can affect how we perform and feel.
The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture found that while subjects in a study viewed a white office as less distracting than other colors, they actually made more errors while working in a white room. Those in “light” rooms such as white, beige, and gray made more errors than those in darker rooms in another study, and also promoted feelings of sadness (particularly in female populations).
Generally, blue rooms are considered stable and calming, helping employees focus on the task at hand. Green rooms are good for those working long hours—it does not promote eye fatigue but does promotes efficiency. Yellow rooms excite us and encourage creativity, while red invokes passion.
Hearing all this, you might want to paint your rooms a variety of blue, green, and yellow shades, depending on what you want to offer your workforce. But UT also found that switching from a blue to a red room in the middle of the day was associated with making more mistakes, so don’t kaleidoscope your office: Pick a theme and stick with it.
Pleasing scents are tied to improved moods, and could combat fatigue and increase alertness. Just a few smells that have been known to boost positive emotions around the office include rosemary, lavender, citrus, peppermint, and jasmine. Skip candles (open flames in an office are usually a no-go) for oil diffusers, humidifiers, or perhaps even the fresh herbs and plants themselves—potted plants can improve air quality as well as a person’s mood.
When it comes to temperature, there’s a common misconception that a cold office is a productive one. The optimal temperature is about 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather than using our energy (which in turn saps our ability to pay attention to minor details) to keep warm, let the office heating system do that, and focus on work. According to the research from Cornell University, raising the temperature by a few degrees can cut mistakes in half, increase keying output, and reduces costs overall.
There are lots of other small touches you can make around the office to boost productivity, such as increase access to natural light (or install natural light bulbs) and ensure desk and computer setups are ergonomically beneficial for each employee.
Offices have almost always had separate rooms with express purposes—conference rooms, break rooms, and so on—other than simply working. But we’ve come to understand that not all types of work are the same, and that some rooms can be designed to encourage different work modes.
“Certain floor plan components will help you maximize productivity in the office,” says Maura Thomas, founder of RegainYourTime.com. “‘Coffee house’ settings work well as an area where employees can go to do low-focus work. Game areas also do well as collaborative spaces, because physical activity fosters creativity. But employees still need quiet, undistracted environments that support the flow, creativity, and brainpower that is required for the work you hired your knowledge workers to do. Build in lots of small group and individual workspaces to allow for uninterrupted work.”
Is there really such a thing as “low-focus” work? And what’s the real benefit of giving people a space for physical activity, other than the perk of getting to play ping pong or foosball at the office?
“I consider ‘low-focus’ work to be anything that’s routine and/or doesn’t require a lot of brainpower, such as filling out expense reports, booking travel, or slogging through emails,” says Thomas. “Having spaces where people can work together can create the ‘collisions’ that are always touted by proponents of open offices; times for people to connect, be social, and have discussions. But loud, distracting spaces don’t need to be the norm, especially in offices where employees doing ‘high-focus’ work need the quiet.”
Maybe don’t give everyone access to the thermostat—fights tend to break out over that. But be aware that as open offices (favored by flatter hierarchies) become more prevalent, that as fun and egalitarian as they seem, they’re not always the most conducive to productivity.
“Employees in an open office can feel helpless because they lack control over their environment,” says Thomas in her latest book, Work Without Walls.
If workers lack their own space entirely, they’re constantly distracted by having to think about their workspace every day, according to Art Markman, a social psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Because it’s harder for these workers to put anything on “auto pilot,” Markman says, they’re less efficient.
Another popular trend in the modern workplace is “hot desking,” where employees frequently move around and sit at different desks. Not only does this make it easier for employees to pack up and leave, but it gives them less of a feeling of control over their space.
Thomas recommends returning control to workers in the following ways:
The furniture and decor of your office can play a major role in how employees perceive it and are able to work inside it.
“There are ample studies that show that loud, distracting offices are awful for productivity and stress, but it’s not hard, or expensive, to mitigate these problems,” says Thomas.
“Hard surfaces amplify noise, soft furnishings and plants diffuse noise, so keeping this in mind when choosing decor is helpful,” she says. “Frosted glass instead of clear can offer some privacy, adding a couch or two into the space near the kitchen or coffee machine can encourage people to gather for a change of pace, and ‘phone booth’ type cubicles around the office edges can offer privacy from large open areas.”
Basically, if you’re going to have rooms with different goals, plan your decor accordingly, and always give people the option of not having to hear or work through others who use the office space differently.
Awareness of the importance of employee health, and how our sedentary lifestyles work against that goal, has skyrocketed in recent years. Preventing illness, rather than treating it, is a cost-effective way for businesses to reduce health-related issues.
How do you do that? Build an active work lifestyle into your office design. Some methods include removing tall barriers, encouraging movement (via walking meetings and walking paths), designing flexible multi-use spaces that can be utilized as studio space, allocating outdoor workspace, and more.
In the 2000s, an estimated 80% of office space was dedicated to individual work, and 20% went to conference and meeting rooms, according to KI’s white paper “Understanding Active Design.” Now the split is more like 50-50. Not only does this result in more collaboration, but there is more physical movement as employees transition between spaces.
The benefits of these choices are quantifiable: Studies showed that “physically healthy workers are more mentally engaged, and encouraging movement and choice in the workplace fosters not only healthier workers, but also more engaged workers. … [H]igh levels of employee engagement can boost revenue growth by between two and a half and four times. There was also a 54% increase in employee retention and an increase in customer satisfaction.”
Companies big and small often look to “hack” the way people work to make them better at their jobs, but this usually comes through the use of communication apps, or investing heavily in learning and development. And those are fantastic tools that often show results. But there are remarkably simpler ways to promote productivity, and it all starts with design. Your office can make your business more productive, and while the investment can be small, the long-term ROI can be huge.