Offices, famously, aren’t great places to work. They’re cramped, crowded, noisy, stale and grey – simply a space in which we generate income for our employers. Popular disdain for offices has reached a point now where the term ‘office job’ is synonymous with drab, depressing work.
Some might well argue that it’s the often repetitive work which makes people feel sad in their office job, but what if it isn’t? What if, instead, it’s the design of your office which makes your employees sad? It’s not such an outlandish theory. In fact, it’s backed up by scientific study.
In Dr. Ron Friedman’s superb book The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace he states that evolutionary psychologists argue that many of our current design preferences can be traced back to our history on the Savannah.
A good example of this is our instinctive preference for sheltered locations that overlook expansive areas, like houses overlooking the sea or the local park. They provide a good view of the environment so we can look out for threats, as well as protect us from any which might come from out of sight.
On the other hand, locations which deny us shelter or a view generate discomfort and distraction, even though we no longer need these features in order to survive, it remains a fundamental part of how we enjoy a space – including our offices. Indeed, brain scans in a 2006 study confirmed that the pleasure center of our brains lights up when we view landscapes, especially ones when they’re produced from a point of refuge.
So how does this translate into our offices? Well, it highlights the requirement for both space and a view. Traditional office design is about cramming as many people into a space as possible, regardless of how much space it means each individual gets. We’ve also seen offices designed around keeping people away from windows in the hope that by moving employees away from windows, they’ll spend less time looking out of them and more time working.
Interestingly, the opposite is true. A 2003 study based on call center workers found that when random call center employees had their desks moved to sit next to a window, they generated an additional $3,000 in revenue per year.
Light, it appears, also plays a massive role in both employee happiness and productivity. Research has found that the amount of direct sunlight entering an office can reliably predict employee satisfaction levels within the workplace.
Daylight regulates our circadian rhythms, which affects our bodies’ functioning. Without access to natural light we sleep less, are less happy and suffer from higher blood pressure.
All of this doesn’t mean you have to move your offices or tear down walls, because things natural light are easily simulated. The introduction of plant life also can improve the working environment, with a 2011 study finding that randomly assigning participants to rooms with indoor plants led to dramatically better performance on tasks requiring sustained attention and concentration, like those typically found in offices.
Clearly then, bad office architecture design can not only make your employees sad, but it can also dramatically decrease productivity too. Ultimately, good design isn’t just about splashing nice paint on the walls and putting a ping pong table in the break room, it’s about appealing to some of our more instinctive and basic requirements.