In Pursuit of Profession: Does design affect productivity?


“Space: the final frontier…” When Captain James T. Kirk began the Star Trek introduction with these words, perhaps he wasn’t just talking about the space that surrounds the tiny little blue marble we call Earth. Perhaps he was also thinking of the space that we work in every day. A bit of a stretch? Perhaps. But I would argue that office design has a tremendous effect on how we function. Lighting, temperature, layout – all of these factors and more affect how human beings perform. I would also argue that the evolution of office design has been a large part of the success of the American economy. And I wouldn’t stand alone in making those two arguments.

A brief history of (office) space

From the start, offices were constructed with productivity goals in mind. In the 1920s, a popular office layout consisted of one big room filled with individual desks all facing a supervisor who was charged with ensuring maximum worker output. The 1960s brought the rise of cubicles where makeshift offices were created by moveable walls. The recessions of the 1980s and 90s made companies try to maximize space and cram workers into as little space as possible within their cubicles, which gave rise to the “cube farms.” The turn of the 21st century brought with it a more open concept feel to offices. Cubicle walls continue to come down in favor of collaborative spaces where spontaneous discussion and teamwork are promoted.

So why is workplace design important? Environmental psychologists argue that office design affects how workers feel. And how workers feel directly affects the bottom line. A recent Forbes study stated that unmotivated employees cost the US economy approximately $500 billion a year in lost productivity. Even simple factors such as air quality and lighting affect these numbers. According to the same study, $15 billion is lost annually in worker productivity due to poor office air quality, but that productivity flourishes when the office space has lots of natural lighting. Add to all of these factors that as more Millennials enter the workforce, they expect the workplace to give them an experience, not just a paycheck. That means that the workplace must be a happy place. And it all starts with good design.

The future of good design

So what is good office design in 2016 and moving forward? And how can designers help companies enhance the space they have or design better office spaces for the future? “Workplace interior design is a thoughtful, client-centered, strategic process,” said Staci Tave, Interior Designer and Project Manager for BOKA Powell, LLC, a full-service architecture, planning and interior design project with an office in Fort Worth. “We begin by researching and observing how a company uses its space. We talk with our clients to understand how they operate on a daily basis, how they see the company’s culture, and what their plans are for growth in the short term and long term.”

For Tave, the workplace environment should not only use colors, logos and slogans to reflect a company’s culture, but it should also make employees know that their comfort is paramount where lighting and ergonomics are crucial. “Lighting has perhaps the most wide-ranging impact. Appropriate light levels are key to workers’ ability to discharge daily tasks. We are seeing greater use of natural light harvesting where either private perimeter offices integrate glass walls to allow natural light to penetrate into the space, or we are seeing companies invert the traditional perimeter office model entirely and place open office areas on windows with low workstations that allow light to reach the building core,” said Tave. “Ergonomics is very much about the way you feel. If you feel strain on your back and neck, it is likely due to an uncomfortable seating position. Workplace furniture manufacturers study the mechanics of the human body and have developed products over time to address how people sit and work best. The best example of this is in task chairs. They are designed to be supportive, and include a wide range of adjustments to allow users to tailor them to each person’s unique shape.”

Tave also had great advice for companies, and individual employees, that want to change their workplace design. “Consider democracy of space. How much of your office is “me” versus “we” space and is there a way to improve what is shared for the benefit of all. If there are specific things that affect comfort that everyone experiences, sometimes those can be addressed easily. For other improvements, be creative and work as a team. Create a plan and devise a proposal for how to execute, including some simple budget numbers. You may want to develop options so management can choose what makes the most sense financially. Overall, if you share the message that what you are proposing will improve productivity and attention, you will likely get management’s attention.”

Finally, a happier employee typically stays longer at a company and happier employees these days are ones that have access to superior technology. “The goal should be to use technology as a tool and design our workspaces to facilitate and enhance human interaction. Where technology can be integrated, it should be flexible. We do not suggest investing in furniture and office systems that are designed for one kind of technology, especially one that is proprietary and requires ongoing investment with one manufacturer to keep it updated,” said Tave. “For companies looking for a “wow” factor, we are seeing many firms look to dedicated customer briefing centers that integrate technology, branding, and explanatory graphics to showcase the firm’s products or services. Those spaces often integrate a wide range of presentation media, like flat-screen televisions, projection and tele-presence equipment to help communicate ideas and information.” If your company is looking to relocate, a huge consideration with regard to employee happiness is office location. “The areas surrounding the location you choose are important. What amenities are nearby that workers may enjoy, including restaurants, bars and shops, parks, residential options, etc.,” said Tave.