The Psychology of Office Design

Office spaces do more than house the employees, strategists and masterminds behind the world’s business, economic, retail and legal sectors – they also shape the psychological framework that helps define the levels of motivation and career satisfaction employers see in their employees. It’s this relationship between people and their environment that can have a positive or negative effect on workplace productivity.

We know that being in an uninspiring place often rubs off on people, in turn affecting their own inspiration levels, but understanding the psychology of a well-designed and well-built office space can teach us a lot about the future of office construction and the weight that work/life balance and employee happiness is already placing on employers and contractors today.

In this post, we’ll discuss some of the ways in which an office design can help to inspire your employees, providing a level of happiness in the office that contributes to increased efficiency and productivity.

Office Psychology History 101

In the 1920’s, office design was revolutionized by Frederick Taylor, one of the gurus of American office culture. He implemented a large open floor space to maximize efficiency by facing each and every desk towards the desk of a supervisor. In the 1930’s and 40’s, air conditioning was introduced, as well as fluorescent lighting, attempting to tailor indoor environments to be more comfortable spaces for employees.

In the 1950’s, universal offices came to fruition, with managers located in separate offices with windows, and employees remaining in the open concept spaces alone. In the 1960’s, noticing that open concept offices were beginning to lose their luster, the cubicle was introduced, allowing the employee freedom of movement, isolating them when they needed to be alone to focus, and offering an open door to inter-office collaboration in the back.

Its purpose was stigmatized in the 1980’s when employers used the cubicles well-organized design to cram as many people into a space as possible due to pending layoff mergers and other events, making employees irrevocably unhappy.

The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a resurgence in open concept office space again, offering a space that encouraged and supported technological innovation and collaboration. Workers became mobile within the office space, not tied to a chair. Into the 2010’s, workers again begun to separate from the open office space, noting its fragility in promoting workplace stress, lowering attention spans, devastating creative thinking and satisfaction, and citing a lack of privacy. As a result, office spaces shifted once more to that of flexible collaborative workspaces – offering employees the choice of where and how to work.

Challenges of Office Design

Understanding the psychology of office design lies in understanding the challenges that face employers and designers.

In excess to special representation, three big issues with modern office design are: potential for distraction, access to a sufficient source of natural daylight, and air quality.

An open office space, while promoting freedom of choice and a mobilized staff encouraged to collaborate with their colleagues, can translate into cognitive overload. Noise and visual stimuli can disrupt focus and the flow of creativity and productivity. 44% of employers note the effects of workplace distraction include people using the internet, noisy co-workers, and co-workers dropping by for a quick chat interrupting the creative flow of employees. A study published by Slate cites that open concept offices promote absenteeism and ruin morale. Further, they “erode workers’ sense of psychological privacy.”

Daylight, or access to natural light improves the sleep and rest cycles of people who work in offices. Research shows that productivity is increased exponentially when employees have access to daylight during their workday. Daylight inspires people to exercise more and allows for an average of 46 extra minutes of sleep each night. It also helps people to communicate better, laugh more and enjoy their work better. Other studies have found that a lack of daylight impairs overall cognitive function.

Air quality affects the productivity of an office beyond reasonable doubt, claims a study published in the US National Library of Medicine. Bad ventilation systems and pollutants in the air contribute to measurable ailments like headache and irritability, while productivity can be decreased by as much as 6-9%. As a counter point to increasing the psychological effects of better air quality, it’s noted that it’s more energy efficient – and therefore cost efficient – for an office designer or employer to eliminate sources of pollution, rather than attempt to increase outdoor air supply rates.

Trends in Office Design

To combat these findings, and others, relating to the psychological effects of different office spaces, employers can take inspiration from groups tackling the issue head on. There’s been many advancements in office psychology through experimenting with hybrid workspaces like neighbourhood structures, used by Mozilla and Google, for example.

Other trends include adding wheels to standardized office equipment like chairs, whiteboards and tables to promote the mobility of groups within the office to seek privacy for a meeting, or a creative breakthrough.

At the Foursquare head office, rooms are dedicated to some of the positive psychological triggers for employees, adopting a ‘herbivore room’ covered in plants to increase the quality of air, and promote association with the outdoor world.

Use of natural materials also promotes the understanding that the office is an extension of the employee’s ideal environment. With so many psychological benefits stemming from the natural world it’s clear that adopting a more natural, organic aesthetic and feel within the office has unbridled benefits for the productivity and happiness levels within your workspace.

The Millennial’s are Coming

The next generation of workers expects to be happy at work. The challenge of employers and office designers is how to give them the level of satisfaction required of sustaining an optimal work/life balance needed to inspire and promote productivity.

In 2015, young people made up 75% of the world’s workforce, according to the University of Southern California’s Applied Psychology Dept. If your office space has chosen to stick with the tried-and-tested mentality of old school workspaces and office design, there will be an inevitable resistance to worker loyalty, employee happiness, and a decrease in motivation and revenue as a result.

It’s in the best interest of everyone to build and promote a healthy, inspiring workplace design into the offices of today. By acknowledging the psychology of what makes employees happy, even in a structured and fabricated space like an office – we’ll see an overall happier population of people who continue to be happy to come to work each day.

Ignoring the psychological perks of studies and first-hand accounts of increased revenue and motivation through beneficial spaces, we’ll continue to perpetuate a world where people end up dreading their 9-5’s.

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