How to design a behaviourally effective office

Parliament House would have to be the most considered architectural development in the Australia. Every nook, rivet and cushion is designed to add value beyond mere function. This I learnt watching the excellent ABC TV series The House, and it got me thinking, how can we shape our workplaces to maximise the value they generate for us? What lessons can we take from behavioural science about the impact of office design on employee satisfaction and productivity? Let’s start with three.

Open plan is actually not that great

Open plan offices seem to have become the default design for workplaces. This is due largely to pragmatic advantages like cost savings and utilisation of floor space. However, just because they are popular doesn’t mean they are best.

According to a University of Leeds review of over 100 open plan studies, staff do tend to feel more sociable and included in such environment. But this comes at a cost to attention spans, productivity and creativity. A Danish study also found people in open plan offices took 62% more sick leave than staff in other environments.

What does this suggest? People might say they like open plan. It makes them feel good because they are in amongst it (when they’re not sick, of course). But there’s a hidden impact to their ability to actually work. Great for collaboration, bad for deliberation.

Ceiling height

Look above you. How high are your ceilings? It turns out that ceiling height can influence how your staff thinks.

In research by Meyers-Levy and Zhu participants were asked to solve a range of anagrams. When seated in a room with high ceilings, participants were able to solve anagrams related to ‘freedom’ (such as liberated or emancipated) faster than they could solve anagrams related to ‘confinement’ (such bound or restricted). Why? Higher ceilings engendered a feeling that was congruent with the concept of freedom – it helped their flow. ‘Confinement’ words, on the other hand, didn’t reconcile with the freedom they were feeling, inhibiting their fluency.

The researchers concluded that lower ceilings more effectively primed people to work on specific, detail oriented tasks. On the other hand, higher ceilings were better for abstract, conceptual thinking.

What’s the lesson? Consider where you place teams according to their function. Creative and design teams might be better off with high ceilings whereas number-crunchers and fact-checkers are likely to improve their focus in lower ceiling environments. You may also consider mixing up the type of communal rooms your staff can access.  Brainstorming sessions may be more productive in rooms with high ceilings, whereas business performance reviews may be more constructive in rooms with ceilings that are lower.

Plants and greenery

Want your staff to be more productive? Just add plants. Research by Marlon, Knight, Postmes and Haslam found employees were 15% more productive after plants were introduced to spartan office environments.

“What was important was that everybody could see a plant from their desk,” according to the researchers.

“If you are working in an environment where there’s something to get you psychologically engaged you are happier and you work better.”

Other researchers from Washington State University found participants in a computer task had a reaction time 12% faster reaction when plants were present in a windowless room, and reported lower blood pressure.

Yet more research found plants to positively impacted performance of females and the mood of males, pointing to some gender differences in how our environment stimulates us.

Environment shapes performance

As the behavioural research attests, there’s clearly more to an office than desks and computers. The environment you create will have a direct bearing on your staff’s performance. With some tweaks and adjustments you may be able to unearth productivity that is currently lying dormant.

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