The World Green Building Council’s 2015 report 'Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building' presents evidence demonstrating that the design of an office has a material impact on the wellbeing and productivity of its occupants. This might be obvious but in some cases when it comes to parting with budgets, the impact of an office on its inhabitants is in danger of slipping down the list of priorities. However, thinking early on about what sort of behaviour you want to encourage with your workplace design can reap dividends in the future.

Miles McLeod

Workplace Consultant

16th Jun 2016

Research has shown that staff who have greater access to daylight are more productive. It’s simplistic to say that having a great view means you’re more likely to look out of the window and away from the computer. Having no view at all means you’re more likely to be resentful. Research has shown that cortisol levels drop considerably under artificial or poor lighting conditions. Of course, we can’t all have far-reaching vistas over Palo Alto but if you want your employees to be happier and more productive, don’t scrimp on the light you do have. Access to a roof-garden or outside space can boost productivity and keep energy levels up.

A study from Cornell University found that workplace temperature can have a profound effect on productivity. You see, what Ebenezer Scrooge failed to realise was that when temperatures are low, workers make 44% more mistakes than when the temperature is optimal. If you’re cold you’re going to spend more energy keeping warm than you are coming up with amazing ideas and campaigns. All this is pretty standard “looking-after-your-staff” stuff. But actually changing the way they think can be done with a bit of clever design.

A 2014 Harvard Business Review article by behaviourist Ethan Bernstein suggests that more transparent environments are not always better. Bernstein’s found that unrehearsed, experimental behaviour sometimes ceases altogether in an open-plan workspace. He maintains that this way of working can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable and this changes how they behave, going to greater lengths to not be seen, even if what they are doing is perfectly innocent. This, he says, has a knock-on effect on leaders, who start to perceive covert activity and monitor accordingly. So, when you’re designing your workplace, it’s crucial to inhabit your inner behaviourist and work out exactly what sort of activity you are likely to elicit. Giving staff space and freedom but access to privacy is far more likely to encourage them to work openly and honestly than “having everything out in the open” with the fear of the boss’s eyes over their shoulder at any given time.

There are other ways to focus the direction of employee behaviour. Rather than shoving everyone into a large pen and expecting them to get along, clever placement of kitchen areas and breakout areas can do the trick just as well. Steve Jobs learned early on at Pixar that allowing animators to interact with execs at the water-cooler could result in greater creativity or so-called “unplanned collaborations”. High-traffic staircases can encourage interaction, lots of common areas can encourage workers to leave their desks and interact, without you telling them.

So remember, office design can have a massive impact on the behaviours you want to encourage so it is crucial that you spend time considering this at the beginning of any office design or office refurbishment project.