The positive impact of office design
How stress can be reduced and productivity increased through well-designed office environments

by Martin Atkinson — The environment we work in has a huge effect on how we think, work and behave. Whether it’s the occasional static electric shock, the irregular temperature or the inoperable windows – what may appear to be a minor design flaw will eventually have a major effect on both performance and behaviour.

A problematic or inefficient workspace will inevitably drain the effort and energy that could otherwise be focused on productivity. When we stop work to relieve our backs, adjust the light or wait for the moment where noise levels lower before making a call, we are exposed to the stresses caused by an inefficient workspace. Lighting, temperature, storage, desk space, acoustics, air quality and break-out zones all have a major effect on performance, wellbeing, positivity and even staff retention. To create a workspace that evokes positive feelings and promotes productivity is seemingly obvious, yet it is surprising how few office environments are designed with these benefits in mind.

Seeing the light

The importance of natural light is often over looked, but daylight exposure should be a major factor when planning and designing a workspace. As well as being cost effective and energy efficient, increasing natural light exposure will have a positive impact on mood and productivity and can even reduce sickness by up to 15%. Natural light can also help us to focus on detail and colour more clearly and can therefore prevent eye strain and the headaches that artificial light can cause.

There are various ways to make best use of the light that the windows in your office provide. If you don’t have floor to ceiling windows, make sure the windows you do have are free from obstruction. Remove furniture and clutter on window sills allowing the maximum light to enter. Try creating a more open environment and consider removing interior walls. These could be replaced with glazed partitions so private offices still exist, but allow natural light to permeate the centre of the office. They will also enhance the overall aesthetic of the office design.

Some offices are integrating natural day light with an electric lighting system. Here the artificial light automatically adjusts, turning off when a sufficient level of daylight exists. Dimming controls work similarly but will need to be continuously adjusted according to natural daylight conditions.

All employees should be able to see a window from their workstation. Studies have revealed that those with desks situated nearer windows are significantly more satisfied with their working environment than those that are not. If workers do not have direct access to daylight in their immediate space, merely seeing daylight or a view of the outside world will have positive effects.

Breaking out

It’s widely accepted that short breaks away from workstations can relieve cluttered minds and the spaces which adopt natural, organic features can have an even greater impact. According to a survey conducted by the University of Michigan, when one group of students were asked to walk around an arboretum and another around a city, the latter group scored significantly lower in concentration tests. By providing a small outside garden area, or even a break-out space with plenty of plants, you will help employees to relax and gather thoughts, without them having to waste time venturing off-site.

Break out spaces offer a change of scene, where casual or spontaneous meetings may occur or information and thoughts can be exchanged. They also encourage internal communication and build team spirit acting as a bridge to otherwise unrelated departments. Such areas can enhance creativity and also offer a space for psychological restoration. Using wireless connectivity in the office can enhance such spaces providing an excellent way for workers to change their scenery, offering office space flexibility. Wireless connectivity also provides further opportunity for spontaneous meetings and discussions to take place in various locations.

Storage and organisation

Lack of storage is often a complaint of frustration for office users of all sizes and cluttered and unorganised workstations are further reason for stress levels increasing. Incorporating a storage audit into office design plans will ensure that the needs of workers are met and that untidy work areas do not increase workplace stress. Desk solutions with multiple horizontal surfaces, document stands, and small stackable surfaces also help allow workers to easily access and store necessary documents.

Short term memories have a limit and often multiple responsibilities can enhance stress, especially when information is lost or forgotten. Providing tack-able surfaces, white boards and large message walls can help to keep individuals and teams on top of the task at hand.

A tidy workplace will also promote greater efficiency, improve the aesthetic of the office and save on wasted space. High density storage walls can double up as an effective partitioning solution, and floor to ceiling units can increase your storage capacity by as much as 50 per cent, whilst using the same amount of floor area.

Personal control

Having a sense of control over the office environment can effectively reduce workplace stress by empowering individuals with the ability to alter the conditions of the environment to suit their needs. Denying the sense of freedom to alter temperature, open a window, reduce sun glare or increase light will dramatically intensify discomfort, therefore stress and can even lead to increased illness in the workplace.

Making sure that workstations allow users to adjust seating, computer equipment placement, lighting levels, workspace layout, work surface heights and ventilation will offer a more flexible environment. Operable windows offer both fresh air and a connection to outdoor sounds and conditions that will positively energise. If office users are granted control of workplace conditions and equipment, their level of comfort will inevitably increase and therefore stress levels will lower, enabling them to function to full capacity.

Investing In comfort

Comfort is critical to physical and psychological well-being. It has been proven that reducing budget on furniture will cost you money in the long run as furniture can stimulate productivity and reduce sick leave dramatically. Lower back pain accounts for more sick leave and disability than any other medical condition, costing UK businesses a fortune every year. Well-designed workstations that genuinely support the physical needs of users should not be substituted with those that simply look like they do. One study in the US revealed that the additional investment in ergonomically designed tables and chairs was returned in only five months following a significant increase in productivity and decrease in sick leave.

Noise and privacy

Noise and lack of privacy are considered to be two of the primary sources of stress in the office workspace. Open plan layouts are becoming an increasingly popular design solution to meet the needs for increased density, but people often associate such workspaces with the loss of privacy and increased noise levels. Such problems only exist as a result of bad planning. When designing a workspace, it is advisable to consider the type of environment you are trying to create. Consider whether your workforce would perform more efficiently in an environment that embraces team collaboration, solitary working or as an overall community. Often a mixture of all the three is required and therefore flexibility is key.

Open plan workspaces can be opened up with glass partitions or half-height walls, without boxing areas off completely. High noise levels in open plan areas can be muted in various ways with carpets, acoustic ceilings and sound absorbing barriers between desks. Small one-toone pods can also cater for the more confidential or contemplative tasks.

Improving staff retention

Investing in staff comfort, well-being and health will improve job satisfaction, morale and therefore staff retention. The role of the workplace in attracting and retaining talent is increasingly being recognised by estate managers as a viable justification for investment in office facilities. Cost reduction efforts could lead to a sense of insecurity, decline in trust and an urge to look for other opportunities. If the cuts are unavoidable, involving employees in the decision-making process will have an empowering effect, minimising negative response. However, investments in staff wellbeing should be considered paramount, as organisations will inevitably see a return in increased productivity and efficiency.

Martin Atkinson is the Managing Director of PiMS Workspace.

As the UK’s leading FM title, PFM has been reporting on facilities management in the UK from its beginnings, and highlighting best practice in Europe and the USA.