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Maximize productivity through office space design


How to enhance morale and boost workplace responsiveness by layout and aesthetics

With every office space design decision you make, you’re making a statement to customers, to vendors and — most important — to the employees who spend their days there. The placement of every wall, the availability — or lack — of windows, every shade of paint and each sight, sound, aroma and texture can impact mood and morale. And nothing stifles productivity like low morale, so it’s important to make every decorating and design decision count.

Make the appropriate statement

When visitors drop in, you don’t want them to think, “This place is a dump. How can anyone work here?” On the other hand, if cost efficiency shows up in everything the world sees from your business, don’t go overboard in your decorating, says Jason Carney, a management consultant and human resource director for WorkSmart, a professional employer organization serving small to mid-sized companies.

“If you’ve got a low-margin business, don’t create a lavish office environment,” he says.

Doing so sends the wrong message to vendors who have had to shave their own margins razor-thin to sell to you. And a lavish office space can cause resentment among employees if it looks like company profits went largely to executive suites and the art on the walls rather than to compensation.

However, you do want to allow for workplace customization to enhance morale, says social psychologist Ron Friedman, who advises against too much uniformity. That’s especially important in today’s shared workspace environments. The need, after all, is ingrained in us.

“We’re territorial animals,” he says.

Friedman, a Harvard Business Review contributor and author of “The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace” (Perigee), uses DreamWorks as an example; the company provides every employee with a budget for decorating and personalizing his or her own space.

“You want employees to know you care,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the little touchpoints that do the most good, such as letting your people post their kids’ artwork in break rooms.”

Zone out the space

No office can fit all moods, preferences and functions, but Carney recommends zoning to separate those people performing very different work activities.

“Those who are into group collaboration should work in an open environment, but that’s not good for people who are on the phone a lot,” he says.

With that in mind, a call center or space for analysts should be walled off a lot differently than an ad agency where creativity, collaboration and buzz are key. The strategic placements of plants can create psychological borders, says Emma Galvez, area district manager at Ambius, a company specializing in interior landscaping and scenting for commercial spaces.

“Raphis is a palm tree with short, broad leaves that can create separation and absorb sound,” she says.

Couches and tables can also be strategically positioned to act as room or space dividers.

Also consider restroom placement, says Carney, as no one wants to sit too close to the bathroom. But neither do they want to be so far away that going there takes too much time away from their work.

Windows and ceilings liberate

Taller ceilings and windows help us engage, and they’re more conducive to creative thoughts, says Friedman. Soaring heights make a room feel expansive, even when it’s not. And windows let in sunlight, which Friedman says impacts the emotional state of employees.

“You can predict by the amount of natural light found in a workspace how satisfied with their jobs employees will be,” he says. “That’s all due to the amount of serotonin and melatonin they receive from sunlight.”

So consider the wide availability of windows or skylights in your layout’s public areas, not just in the executive wing, or, alternatively, use plenty of greenery if windows aren’t in the configuration.

Consider generational preferences

Flexibility is key for the younger crowd, says Carney.

“They don’t like one box that’s theirs,” Carney says. “They want to be able to take their laptops into the kitchen if they want. Older workers prefer an office. That’s why it’s so important to know your demographics.”

Younger workers also have fewer privacy concerns. They might be coming right out of college, where they lived in dorms or off-campus housing with roommates and lots of social activity. Or they might have shared a bedroom with a sibling. They’re used to close, collaborative social dynamics, and they’ve always had mobile devices and are in the habit of moving around, working just as easily from a couch or coffeehouse as from a desk.

Older workers, on the other hand, probably entered the employment market in a time and place where everyone on track professionally had their own office — or aspired to have one. Their stationary spots had phones that plugged in and desktop computers that kept them rooted.

So think about the generational mix of your people and the different ways they might respond to office space. If you have a generally older group, perhaps today’s trend toward open layout and shared-space design isn’t for your business. If that’s not possible, take into consideration the need to create psychological barriers or to zone for private spaces where workers can go when they need quiet time.

Red means focus, green means create

The color red makes us more sensitive to failure, says Friedman. This makes it a good shade for those who must think critically, such as accountants. Alternatively, green makes us less attentive to detail, so it enhances creativity, he says.

Think of what kind of work will be done in your spaces. If focus is important to some, and creative output expected of others, mix your palette appropriately.

Additionally, Carney offers these views on emotional reactions to color.

“Too much white in an office space can make workers unproductive,” Carney says. “Shades of blue and green represent confidence and relaxation, which is easy on the eyes and can also create an environment of calm. Visitors and clients will find the colors welcoming, while employees will be able to focus and be more productive.”

Strike an emotional chord by appealing to all senses

Ambius, the company specializing in interior landscaping and scenting for commercial spaces, appeals to the emotions of occupants in the type and placement of real and replica greenery and the aromas it can subtly introduce to the environment.

“We might put a peppermint aroma in a sales and marketing conference room because peppermint increases energy levels,” says Galvez.

Ambius uses organic, oil-based aroma systems that can be placed near air ducts for wide circulation, or that can sit on tables or plug in to wall outlets. Galvez and her team also match plant placement with desired mood.

“For an HR office or law firm, anywhere there might be client interaction or emotional conversation, we’d place plants with rounded leaves because that’s more calming, not spiky leaves, which convey energy,” she says.

Like Friedman, Galvez stresses the importance of sunlight and the availability of greenery, especially when windows are rare. That’s because humans yearn for interaction with other living systems, an emotional state called biophilia, Galvez says.

Music, or some level of background sound, is also important to our psyches.

“Studies show that too much quiet can distract because your hearing adjusts to the point where every little noise is a distraction,” says Friedman. “A moderate level of noise is actually helpful.”

So keep distractions down, but don’t make your space too quiet or foreboding, especially if you have a younger workforce. It’s not always easy establishing the right balance, but if you can get your office ambience just right, you’ll gain a quick ROI in terms of company morale and productivity.