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Workplace Design

How does the physical work environment impact people? What’s important to keep in mind when changing workplace design? Here’s what the research says…

More satisfied with our physical work environment = Greater overall job satisfaction.

When people are satisfied with workplace design – including lighting conditions, perceptions of privacy, acoustics, and workstation size – we tend to report higher overall job satisfaction.

Important! Be a savvy research consumer. Correlation is not causation. Correlations raise more questions than they answer. Will a better work environment make people happier with our jobs? Will being happier with our jobs make people more satisfied with our work surroundings? Or does “something else” make us happier with both our work and our surroundings – e.g., is it likely that organizations investing in enjoyable, productive work environments are also doing other things that promote strong job satisfaction22,38?

Create an ecosystem of spaces opening choice and movement.

Some of the most successful work environments provide an “ecosystem” – or variety – of spaces that allows people to choose where and how to accomplish work. A mix of enclosed or quiet spaces that are available based on needs (rather than hierarchy) promote concentration. A mix of large and small, open and enclosed collaboration spaces support interaction in pairs, small, and large groups.

Additionally, some organizations have started to incorporate what is known as the “third place.” The third place refers to spaces where people choose to be, beyond work and home. Third places attract us by providing a sense of community and bringing people together. Some of the most common examples of third places are local coffee shops and pubs. People who work from home often confess to working more often at their kitchen table or couch than in their home office. Reimagining the break room with a café aesthetic and kitchen tables, or with sofas and coffee tables (plus mobile technology), creates a third place within the work environment.

Strategic coffee pots and limited pathways increase chance encounters that build communication networks.

Listen to what Cal Newport, PhD in computer science and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, thinks about how we're handling constant interruption9,31,40

There are many reasons to intentionally create an open-plan workplace design. And several challenges to address to make open-plan workspaces productive and enjoyable for people4,12,19,21,23,25,36.

Open-Office AdvantagesOpen-Office Challenges
Accommodates more people per area, reducing real estate, operating, energy costsPerceptions (sometimes real, sometimes not) of reduced visual and acoustic privacy for work and personal matters
More flexible for future restructuringPerceived status loss when people move to smaller or less enclosed individual workspace
Increase in face-to-face informal conversations instead of formal meetingsGreater possibility for cognitive overload due to increased stimuli in the environment
More on-the-fly opportunities to share task-relevant information, exchange feedbackIncreased interaction (without sound mitigation) increases noise level complaints
Greater levels of collaboration to brainstorm, integrate work processes, and solve problemsUnmanaged distractions and interruptions have a negative impact on performance
Changes in perceptions of organizational culture, when intentionalChanges in perceptions of organizational culture can backfire if not guided well

Workplace design contributes a lot to status perceptions.

Many workplace design characteristics influence perceptions of status at work, including: quantity and quality of furnishings, amount of space in a workstation, opportunity for personalization, and ability to control access by others.

Recognize that workplace design changes that reduce any of these elements are easily interpreted as status loss, provoking change resistance20.

Work environment impact is not the same for everyone.

Some people are more resilient than others when it comes to screening visual and auditory distractions in an open-plan workplace design.

People with stronger sensory inhibitory ability, more robust stimulus screening, and higher working memory capacity tend to fend off distractions better and be more satisfied with open-plan workspaces.

Conversely, people with poor sensory inhibitory ability, lower levels of stimulus screening, and lower working memory capacity tend to be more easily distracted and less satisfied with open-plan offices.

Individual characteristics matter most for complex (i.e., not routine or well-learned) work tasks that require sustained concentration (see next point) 10,12,24.

Work environment impact is not the same for every type of work.

Certain types of work are more vulnerable to performance degradation in open-plan environments than others.

For simple and repetitive work, people perform better in the presence of others. But, for complex work, people perform better on their own.

This difference is especially strong when people have poor inhibitory ability. When people who are more easily distracted performed complex work in low privacy areas, they performed worse and reported lower job satisfaction (see above point)3,12,24.

Visual and auditory privacy are different.

Workstation partition heights impact visual privacy satisfaction but not auditory privacy satisfaction.

In research studies, people with mid-range partitions (55 inches, just above seated eye-level), or higher, were more satisfied with visual privacy in an open-plan office.

However, partition height did not have an impact on sound privacy perceptions. People recognized that the ability to have a conversation without neighbors overhearing was similar regardless of partition height19,45.

Freedom to personalize individual workspace is beneficial.

Freedom to personalize within the overall workplace design contributes to job satisfaction and satisfaction with the physical environment.

Interestingly, workspace personalization also buffers the impact of privacy concerns. A significant consequence of low perceived privacy is emotional exhaustion. People experiencing emotional exhaustion at work are more likely to have poor performance and to leave the organization.

Researchers noticed that when there is high personalization in the workspace, privacy concerns are less likely to lead to emotional exhaustion. But when the workspace lacks personalization, the adverse effects of privacy concerns on emotional exhaustion are more intense21,43,44.

Noise-reduction materials and systems are important.

Noisy work environments weaken job performance. People working in settings with irrelevant speech in the background (vs silence) perceive their workload to be higher. People exposed to noise show lower recall, and report feeling more tired and less motivated. Additionally, noise exposure leads to increases in norepinephrine and epinephrine, two hormones that the body releases when under stress.

Noise mitigation helps by protecting people from distractions. People report lower cognitive stress and lower perceived disturbance when in an open-plan space with sound-absorbing ceiling tiles, wall materials, and floor coverings. In addition, well-calibrated sound masking systems contribute to acoustic satisfaction in open-plan offices15,17,29,33,34,36.

A brief NPR story on noise in the workplace and the benefits of "pink noise:"

Having control and choice within the workspace boosts morale.

Having control within the workplace design positively relates to job satisfaction, satisfaction with the work environment, and group cohesiveness. Workspace control opportunities that create a boost include being able to personalize space or easily re-arrange/reorganize work stations.

Additionally, having choice among different spaces provides a sense of control. Having access to a variety of work spaces, and being able to hold meetings in different spaces, boost satisfaction and team cohesion too.

It’s not all about feeling happy. Control and choice within the work environment link to stronger performance via the impact on job satisfaction23.

Some work environment elements are NOT high-impact opportunities to give people choice.

In a study allowing some people to choose lighting, there was no impact on task performance, mood, satisfaction with lighting, or physical health. People who didn’t have control over their lighting were just as productive and satisfied.

Be selective when offering people input, choice, and options in workplace design. For workspace elements that are more in the background and where there are clear standards and optimal recommendations (e.g., for lighting types and levels), simply follow the standards. Introduce choice where it matters most for workspace personalization (e.g., desk accessories, options for meetings)39.

Choose lighting to minimize harm and maximize productivity.

Lighting influences visual comfort, cognitive performance and problem solving. Beneficial workplace lighting maintains healthy circadian rhythm, positive mood, and even improves interpersonal relations. Poor lighting can lead to eye strain, migraines, and fatigue5,6,14,18.

Natural light is important in workplace design.

In general, people prefer to work near, or in sight of, windows. People working near a window express more positive perceptions of privacy, planning, and lighting. Benefits of working in daylit rooms include: enhanced productivity, more positive mood and reduced stress, and reduced eyestrain.

Where natural light isn’t available, full-spectrum artificial lighting has a positive effect on people1,14,41,42,45.

Workplace design can have a real impact on physical activity and healthy habits.

Building and office design influence our physical activity. For example, when there is increased distance between work stations and popular destinations (e.g., printer, cafeteria, coffee kiosk), the number of steps walked throughout the day increases, as well as the number of face-to-face interactions.

Thoughtful placement of vertical movement elements encourages physical activity. Making stairs inviting and convenient promotes stair use. Making elevators less prominent also contributes2,46.

Sit-stand desks reduce sedentary time and increase energy levels.

Research on sit-stand desks and productivity is mixed (some studies find increased productivity, whereas others find no significant differences). However, people tend to view sit-stand desks favorably and the opportunity to stand while working has a positive effect on health and well-being.

When people have access to height-adjustable desks, sedentary time is significantly less than for people who only have access to sitting desks. Sit-stand desks have been found to reduce sitting time at work by 21% and to increase overall sense of well-being and energy. In one study, people assigned to use a standing desk for 10 hours or more per week for 3 months had significantly higher levels of moderate physical activity than those who continued sitting throughout the same timeframe.

Sedentary behavior is related to poor cardiovascular health, high blood pressure, cancer, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, chronic back and neck pain, mental health issues, muscle degeneration, and osteoporosis. Many of these health problems have been found to influence worker absenteeism, productivity, and performance7,8,13,16,27,30,32,35,37.

Create a culture of managing tensions creatively with walking meetings:

Consider “hot desking” carefully, and with teams in mind.

“Hot desking” and “hoteling” have become attractive for organizations outgrowing capacity or trying to minimize real estate costs. Especially for team members who work alternate shifts or who perform much of their work out of the office, reducing empty desks improves space efficiency.

The human implications? Not having an assigned desk at work can influence identification and perceived conflict.

In general, people with assigned desks report stronger identification with both their team and the organization than those without an assigned desk. However, people with an assigned desk identify more strongly with their team than the organization at-large, whereas those without assigned desks more strongly identify with the organization than with their team.

Additionally, hot desking links to higher perceived conflict, distrust, and uncooperative behaviors than open-plan workplace design with assigned desks.

Consider team projects and workflow when implementing hot desking11,26,28.


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