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Workplace design for productivity

Is your boss the host with the most?

Did you visit friends or family this weekend?

How welcome did you feel?

Do you want to visit again – or return the invitation?

Did they offer advice on transport or parking?

Perhaps tracked down your favourite snack or checked for allergies?

Was there a clean and convenient spot to hang your coat and leave your bag?

A high chair for a toddler or an extra cushion for someone with a bad back?

Around 75% of us feel as though we’re more productive at home on the kitchen table or in the spare room than we do in the places hosted by our employers, the office. 

And yet employers want us to spend more time ‘at their place’.

We all know what counts is whether your host or hostess made you feel genuinely noticed and at ease, not how much they spent or even where they live. It’s also common sense that no amount of lavish catering or gold-plated taps will make up for bickering or bullying hosts.

It’s the same with workplace design.

The technical term for how well your workplace delivers is called Interior Environmental Quality (or IEQ).  IEQ satisfaction is the strongest positive predictor of staff engagement, especially in private offices – A longitudinal investigation of work environment stressors on the performance and wellbeing of office workers.

This large-scale review identified three broad levels, similar to Maslo’s hierarchy of needs: Indoor environment quality effects on occupant satisfaction and energy consumption: Empirical evidence from subtropical offices.

1.  Basics: Acoustics, basic temperature and humidity, lighting, privacy and cleanliness.

2.  Performance factors: Thermal comfort, indoor air quality, furnishing, available space and personal control – access to the light switches comes top of the list

3.  And the Bonus factor, things like a gym or a free cafe. But of all these perks, just having a window came out top every time – Comparing better building design and operation to other corporate strategies for improving organizational productivity: a review and synthesis.

Getting IEQ right matters because when you feel you’re working in a space that’s set up to help you be your best, you believe your productivity goes up. That in turn boosts objective productivity, engagement and satisfaction. Men seem to be most strongly affected by specific elements of IEQ, while women tend to experience their environment ‘in the round’ – The impacts of building characteristics, social psychological and cultural factors on indoor environment quality productivity belief.

This classic paper by Fisk and Rosenfeld estimates that improved indoor environment can result in a direct increase in productivity, ranging between 0.5 and 5 percent – A genetic algorithm based framework to model the relationship between building renovation decisions and occupants’ satisfaction with indoor environmental qualityAnother study calculates the potential financial benefits of improving indoor environments exceed costs by a factor of 18 to 47 – Estimates of Improved Productivity and Health from Better Indoor Environments.

On the flip side, poor IEQ chips away at productivity and morale. One study found reduced cognitive performance between 2.4% and 5.8%, and up to 14.8% for some. Every incremental increase in stress factors directly reduced performance – A longitudinal investigation of work environment stressors on the performance and wellbeing of office workers.


So which dimensions of the IEQ count the most?

Noise, especially sound levels inside the building consistently tops the list of IEQ factors that employees care about, followed by air quality, light and thermal satisfaction – Perceived Indoor Environment and Occupants’ Comfort in European “Modern” Office Buildings: The OFFICAIR Study. Perceived control over the environment is the single biggest factor in satisfaction. Simply having access to the light switch made the greatest difference overall. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these effects  are greatest in open plan compared to closed offices – Indoor environmental factors affecting the productivity of workers in office buildings. 

It’s hard to isolate the effects of any one dimension in a complex environment like an office. But one study found that every one-unit increase in perceived quality of light related to a reduction in risk of stress of 0.88 – Associations of perceived indoor environmental quality with stress in the workplace.

The classic Snowball effect study with the CBRE and University of Twente linked changes to dynamic lighting with supplemental task lighting and enhanced control with an increase in subjective performance of 18% and 12% in objective performance. Staff reported feeling more energised and 76% even reported they felt happier.

Veitch et al concluded that “People who appraise their lighting as good will also appraise the room as more attractive, be in a more pleasant mood, be more satisfied with the work environment, and more engaged in their work.” – Lighting quality and office work: two field simulation experiments.

Employees who feel welcomed to the office as honoured guests are more likely to accept the invitation to return – and to get more done while they are there.


View v Glare – ask the machine?

Windows and outside views consistently score top marks when it comes to workplace preference and employee performance. This dynamic connection with the outside world can even improve sleep and physical activity.

But that life-affirming view must be set against the stress and discomfort caused by glare and overheating as well as energy performance. In a retrofit setting, where external shading and other options are not on the cards, the default solution is often simply to throw in some blinds and hope for the best.

This fascinating case study in a glazed post-war office building in central London demonstrates how an intelligent user-centred and sustainable solution can help even the most experienced professional to think outside the box and balance human, environmental and regulatory needs.

The team asked occupants what mattered most to them and put these priorities along with technical criteria such as LEED and WELL performance standards into a Genetic Algorithm  GA), or a form of generative calculation that mimics the interplay of multiple objectives, constraints and uncertainty we see in natural selection. 

The GA generated hundreds of innovative options that were filtered and optimised to balance key criteria including comfort and sustainability, building orientation and climate conditions.

The designers could vary the weighting of each criteria, to precisely calculate the trade-offs before applying their professional and operational expertise and creativity, narrowing the options from over 100 viable alternatives to four optimal and ultimately a single choice – Solving the comfort-retrofit conundrum through post-occupancy evaluation and multi-objective optimisation.


To collaborate or concentrate, that is the question!

Workplace design has shifted from the much-maligned open plan to two related approaches: Activity-Based Working or Activity-Based Flexible Offices. 

Workplaces adopting these strategies broadly divide a space into two zones: collaborative team work, which includes socialising ‘water cooler’ and cafe areas; and concentrated solo activity. These models seem to work fine for collaborative work. But our ability to focus seems to suffer, with a knock-on impact on stress levels and productivity – Is activity-based working impacting health, work performance and perceptions? A systematic review.

This team identified five key criteria for how satisfied and productive we will feel in this type of workplace: 

  1. Zone diversity – the range of workspace types (large and small meeting rooms for example)
  2. Proportions – how many of each are available to suit the working styles and tasks of the team
  3. Readability- visual and other clues that let you know what the space should be used for  and therefore how you should behave
  4. Sharing ratios, or the number of people regularly using a space
  5. Functionality of furniture and tools, including storage and adjustable desks and lights – Relationship between the design characteristics of activity-based flexible offices and users’ perceptions of privacy and social interactions.
  6. Spatial enclosure, especially visual and acoustic privacy.


Privacy is critical to your ability to concentrate and create – and one of the reasons many prefer to work at home.  When it comes to visual privacy, there are two broad types: 

Visual distraction – clutter, complexity and movement. This is a direct drain on your brain’s resources as it takes more effort to maintain focus in the face of distractors. – Stimulus specific cortical activity associated with ignoring distraction during working memory encoding and maintenance.

A second, less tangible dimension is surveillance – a sense that others may be watching or checking on you.  Not only is this sense of exposure unsettling but, potentially represents an insult to a person’s “independence, dignity, and integrity” – Privacy at Work: A Review and a Research Agenda for a Contested Terrain.

Lighting and zoning can help to foster this sense of privacy and enclosure,

This is borne out by a  ‘before and after’ study of an office move.  Improved privacy and design cues that helped them to understand how to interact with others in different types of space boosted job and workplace satisfaction. It also reduced emotional and mental fatigue – Office relocation: changes in privacy fit, satisfaction and fatigue.


One for your ears while you wait for the kids to finish their class

Your body: a user’s guide – why do we have a chin?

An elegant explanation of how your body works in 15-minute bite-sized sessions. Listen to the one on eyes, obviously. The ones on ears and bones are fascinating too – The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

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