Getting Workspace Design Right

There’s a popular trend lately around open concept offices with undesignated desks or seating. “Inspire collaboration!” interior design types enthuse. Physical workspace design is an interesting topic for yours truly given that the place where this blog and others are written happens to be under a canopy of trees on an outdoor cottage deck (or comfy fireside couch in wet or colder shoulder seasons). Might not be the most ideal arrangement for everyone though. The point being, what works for one doesn’t necessarily apply to all.

Physical workspace design can influence employee engagement and benefit the overall employee experience — when done right.

Environmental design psychologists and neuroscientific studies espouse all sorts of different approaches to enhance moods and lift productivity. One thing they all seem to support is the notion that the natural inclinations of our archaic human ancestors shape many of our preferences today.

In an excerpt from his book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, Ron Friedman writes how “we’re drawn to environments that promoted our survival and feel uneasy in situations that would have put our forefathers at risk.”  So what are these largely unconscious preferences?


We’re instinctively most comfortable in protected spaces with a view. It gives a sense of security, akin to what a bird might feel in its nest.  Imagine sitting in a Greek island cave overlooking the teal waters of the Mediterranean, or a beautifully appointed room sixty-stories above a buzzing metropolis. Could that be why the bulk of C-suites are on the highest floors of our organizations?


The desire for safe locations also explains why sitting with our back to others is uncomfortable at best. Being snuck up on is a potential threat. As environmental psychologist Sally Augustin points out, this is one reason that restaurant booths fill up more quickly than free-standing tables. Maybe it’s time to reassess all those cubicle farms where employees face in to their walls.


Employees who sit near a window are better at staying on task, show greater interest in their work, and report more loyalty to their company. A 2003 study found that when call center employees—who often rotate seats—are placed near a window, they generate an additional $3,000 of productivity per year. And a 2013 study found that employees who have workspaces with windows sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night than those laboring in windowless rooms. Sunlight’s regulation of our circadian rhythms and its role balancing serotonin and melatonin levels helps give a good night’s rest and a proper recharge for the following day’s activities—just as it did for Neanderthals 400,000 years ago.


Seemingly sitting in a circle encourages a collective mindset, whereas sitting in a straight line triggers feelings of individuality says psychologist turned writer, Dr. Christian Jarrett.  He suggests “choosing a layout and furniture that is curved and rounded rather than sharp and straight-edged. Creating this environment has been linked with positive emotions, which are known to be beneficial for creativity and productivity.” Does this harken back eons to sitting around a warm fire under the blanket of night?


We’ve all heard how different colors influence our moods. Exposure to blue and green has been shown, says Dr. Jarrett, “to enhance performance on tasks that require generating new ideas. However, the color red has been linked with superior performance on tasks involving attention to detail.” Use the power of color wisely to power up employees.


The ambience created by lighting is another key consideration for physical workplace design. Dr. Jarrett suggests brighter lights “are more conducive to analytical and evaluative thinking, while a dimmer environment stimulates creativity and ideas, probably because it encourages a feeling of freedom.” Lighting that can be adjusted makes good sense. So does the okay for employees to bring their own light fixtures to their workspaces to create a preferred ambience with a personal touch.


Have you noticed the popularity of fish aquariums at dental offices? Or flipped past the fireplace channel on TV? Nature has a calming effect on our species. A 2011 study found that randomly assigning participants to rooms with indoor plants led to significantly better performance on tasks requiring sustained attention and concentration. So bring the outdoors inside with live plants and fresh-cut flowers. Or build that new facility in a treed, green setting.


Clutter doesn’t necessarily reflect a chaotic state of mind. Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota found that participants seated at a paper-laden desk in a messy room came up with more imaginative uses for a ping pong ball than participants tested in a tidy space. Some will say that an uncluttered desk is a sign of organization. Whatever works best for the employee is best for the organization. Set judgmental thinking aside.


A UK workplace consultancy conducted a small 47-person sample size survey in 2010 to find out what personal control over workspace means to employees. Those workers given the opportunity to arrange a small office with as many or few plants and pictures as they wanted were up to 32 percent more productive than others not given this control. They also identified as being more engaged with their employer. Empower employees and give them the freedom to personalize the space where so much of their life is spent.

Conspicuous by its Absence

One physical workspace design element missing from the mix is the trending notion of open concepts—alongside unassigned workspaces and the collaboration effect. In fact to quote an excerpt from an article in Harvard Business Review written by Sally Augustin, a practicing design/environmental psychologist: “Most workers need to be able to concentrate on the tasks at hand, and that’s difficult in a field of cubicles or in a sea of faces when the cubicles are removed and all employees are asked to sit at long tables. And those open spaces aren’t spurring useful communication. Research consistently shows that constructive, work related collaboration doesn’t increase when work environments are made more open.”

While that open concept, no designated desk or seating scenario might appear great in principle, the productivity of, say, developers in high tech environments for instance—who need and prefer their own workplaces to store prototypes, test devices, and concentrate in quiet peace—would suffer. Big time. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to a tech start-up keen on keeping ahead of the employee engagement curve, but not wise enough to slow down and consult its workforce first. Suffice it to say the initiative backfired.

An employee survey could have circumvented this situation and others like it. If you really want to know what physical workspace design elements your employees respond to best, get an outside employee survey specialist like TalentMap to ask.

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