Good office design is vital for a business to function successfully, but so is employee satisfaction. Staff costs make up around 90 percent of a typical business’ annual outlay, meaning that employees are a valuable resource. Moreover, physical and aesthetic aspects of the office environment can have huge effects on employees' comfort and health.
The World Green Building Council estimates that impaired productivity due to health conditions costs Australian businesses $26 billion a year, with actual absenteeism costing an additional $7 billion.
Many people spend more waking hours in their office than in any other location, so improving the office environment is well worth the investment. This chapter will describe the key environmental factors that business leaders should focus on to create a healthy, comfortable and productive workplace.
Comfort and Productivity
- In the workplace, comfort matters – not least because workers believe that it matters but also from the scientific perspective. Several large-scale studies report huge correlations between workers’ reported comfort and productivity ( Haynes, 2008 ). Physical factors, psychological factors, and physiological factors all affect how comfortable workers feel within the office environment.
This means that to maximise employee satisfaction and wellbeing, designers should consider the office environment as a multi-sensory experience. Experts have identified seven areas which can affect employee’s reported wellbeing and productivity in the office: colours, lighting, noise levels, air quality, temperature, contact with nature, and creative finishing touches. These will now be discussed in turn.
- There is remarkable concordance between people's responses to colours ( Wright, 1984), and different colours affect mood and brain function in fairly predictable ways. Light colours are calming and create a feeling of open space. Pure white evokes simplicity and efficiency, but can make workers less productive, so is better accented with other colours, or blended into off-white with a more activating colour. Cool hues soothe and increase productivity; blue stimulates clear thought and communication, whereas green symbolises freshness and growth. Warm colours are energising and boost creative thinking. Red is often used in food outlets because it stimulates appetite, but it also conveys aggression, whereas pink is comforting and de-energising. Yellow is optimistic and extroverted, but can trigger anxiety. Blue, green and pale neutrals are popular shades for workplaces, but colour choice should reflect the work and the organisation.
A creative agency might benefit from warm hues, whereas cool shades befit more conservative industries such as financial services. Colours can also be varied within a workplace to optimise the comfort and output of different departments.
- Lack of natural light in the workplace can cause tiredness and low mood, potentially damaging productivity. One study showed that workers in offices without windows reported reduced quality of life and got 45 minutes less sleep per night than those whose offices that had windows. Reap the benefits of natural light by placing desks and equipment as close to windows as possible and positioning mirrors, reflecting blinds and light-coloured surfaces in areas where they reflect light around the room.
If natural light is not available, artificial light sources should be used intelligently to maximise employee comfort and save energy. Fluorescent tubes are highly energy efficient and consequently they are often used for lighting whole spaces, with compact versions for task lights. LED lamps offer an even lower energy alternative to fluorescent task lights.
Up-lighting illuminates dark areas and minimises shadows cast by overhead lighting, creating a more comfortable environment. Digital sensors and control systems enable real-time monitoring and adjustment of light levels so as to optimise energy efficiency.
- Working in a noisy environment decreases productivity and job satisfaction, as well as damages health and energy levels. The ideal noise level for an office is 48-52dB, according to a survey of workers. The type of business, number of employees and layout all moderate the noise level. Open plan offices may reach 60dB, double the noise level that disrupts conversations. Noise levels of 55dB measurably increase epinephrine, the cardinal stress hormone.
Workplace noise levels should be appropriate to the tasks being performed. If certain functions require quiet zones or noisier collaborative teamwork areas, the layout should be designed to fit that need. Soft furnishings, ceiling tiles, carpets and noise reducing panels are all excellent ways to absorb excess noise.
Printers and photocopiers should be placed in separate rooms to reduce distracting machine noise. Employees could also use noise cancelling headphones or listen to sounds that cancel out environmental noise.
- Poor air quality in the workplace affects general health, sometimes producing respiratory symptoms and headaches. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration advises that poor indoor air quality has significant effects on mood and productivity. One experimental study systematically varied air quality while people performed simulated office tasks. Superior air quality improved performance on typing, mathematics and proof-reading tasks (Wargocki et al., 2000).
To improve air quality, employees can open windows or doors when feasible. In areas with high outdoor pollution levels, indoor air quality can be improved by using air filters and live plants.
Another intriguing aspect of air quality is scent. According to Ruth Mastenbroek, smell is the sense that most drastically modulates brain activity. Pine and citrus increase alertness, whereas lavender aids relaxation. Subtle natural and artificial aromas, guided by aromatherapy principles, can increase comfort and productivity.
- In Australia, the recommended temperature for office workers is 23-26 degrees during summer and 20-24 degrees during winter (taking account of the fact that people dress more warmly in winter). Extreme temperatures harm productivity, with extreme cold having a more pronounced effect than extreme heat. Many factors, not just windows, heating and air conditioning, affect the temperature of the workplace.
Older computers, servers and photocopiers can generate significant heat. The position of vents and heaters should be decided with reference to workstations, minimising draughts and avoiding temperature gradients between workers’ heads and feet. Where possible, office workers should be able to adjust the temperature in their own working area; portable heaters and fans can help to tailor each person’s workspace to maximise productivity across the office.
Contact with Nature
- Studies show that contact with nature has a positive influence on office workers’ self-reported wellbeing and physical health, as well as aiding concentration and productivity. Contact with nature can include opportunities to walk outside during breaks, views of nature from windows, natural light, artworks depicting natural scenes, and live plants.
Studies show that contact with nature has a positive influence on office workers’ self-reported wellbeing and physical health, as well as aiding concentration and productivity. Contact with nature can include opportunities to walk outside during breaks, views of nature from windows, natural light, artworks depicting natural scenes, and live plants.
Creative Finishing Touches
- The final step is to add unique details to the office space. Office environments lacking decorative touches can feel suffocating and uncomfortable, with a corresponding dip in productivity. If possible, employees should be encouraged to keep personal items on their desks. Ornaments and photographs will keep their spirits buoyant and make the workplace feel homely.
Some companies invite local artists to display their work at their offices, raising the company’s profile and perhaps gaining a regular supply of updated office artwork for free. Creative touches can also reinforce brand identity. Many companies incorporate their logo or merchandising materials into their décor, or dedicate an entire wall to an image related to the business.
A vision board allows all staff to express their thoughts and hopes about the company’s future by pinning messages and photographs onto a wall space – an inspiring technique used by many of today’s most successful brands.
There is no magic formula for a happy, productive workforce, but office designers can contribute significantly. Active control systems allow real-time monitoring and adjustment of physical environmental variables, but the optimal conditions for each specific office space can only be determined by consulting staff and observing how the space is used in day-to-day business.
In addition to physical conditions, aesthetic elements of office design are critical to promoting a feeling of comfort in the workforce. Well-chosen colours, opportunities to connect with nature and creative finishing touches all serve to enhance psychological wellbeing. The most comfortable offices are designed to support employees and their work in a holistic, tailored manner, meaning that a comprehensive approach, considering all the factors discussed here, has the best chance of success.