I’ve been reading a lot about how office spaces affect people’s ability to be productive. Every aspect of the work environment, including temperature, noise, and light, takes a toll in making a physical space more or less conducive to how we work.
Factors of an Ideal Work Space
Exactly what makes an ideal environment changes based on the type of task we’re doing. It also varies dramatically based on personal preferences, and there are some tendencies among different groups categorized by age, sex, as well as local environment. For example, people who live in warm climates typically prefer a warmer indoor office temperature than people who live in cold climates. In one study (Maula et al., 2016), women rated an indoor office temperature of 23 Celsius (about 72F) as colder than men did.
Al Horr et al. (2016) combed through studies of indoor office environments and found that, overall, a well-maintained indoor office environment results in people taking fewer sick days, reduces the turnover rate, improves employee satisfaction, and increases productivity. They targeted eight factors that had a major effect:
- indoor air quality and ventilation
- thermal comfort (not “temperature” exactly, but how different temperatures feel)
- lighting and daylighting
- noise and acoustics
- office layout
- biophilia (proximity to nature, such as plant life) and views (i.e., windows)
- look and feel
- location and amenities.
Many of those factors can’t be controlled at the level of an individual employee, however. A typical office worker can’t typically decide to improve the ventilation of an entire building, for instance. If you work for an organization that leases office space from a building, even the executives of your company may not be able to change certain aspects of the space.
Individuals can control a few aspects of their work environment, however. A good pair of noise-canceling headphones, for example, might counter the effects of poor acoustics and too much ambient noise. If you work in an urban environment where the views out the windows show nothing but a concrete jungle, consider getting a few small plants to put around your desk. Certain types of small plants that easily thrive indoors, such as spider plants and aloe vera, can improve the air quality, too, as evidenced by one former researcher at NASA who has since become an active proponent of using houseplants to improve home and office air quality. How much it improves and how many plants are needed to get the job done is a tougher set of questions to answer, but however you slice it there are benefits of biophilia.
The Happiness Factor
Another reason our surroundings matter is happiness. Happiness increases motivation, and increased motivation leads to greater productivity. Having a work space that makes you happy probably seems like common sense, but it’s the kind of thing many of us simply forget to spend time cultivating. The habits we have about our work routine often don’t make it easy to set aside an hour randomly to redecorate our immediate surroundings.
Additionally, it’s tough to claim much personal space in an open-office environment, which many knowledge workers know all too well has become a popular way for employers to save money while pretending it promotes collaboration and productivity (it largely doesn’t). Aside from adding a few photos and plants, open-office plans don’t allow us to make a pretty work space to call our own.
I work from home, so ostensibly, I have total control and agency over my space. But just like everyone else, I rarely carve out time in my working routine to make my immediately environment a little prettier and more pleasant to be.
Office spaces that are well designed, meaning they do well on the eight factors cited earlier, end up with employees who are more productive, healthier (they take fewer sick days), happier, and less likely to quit (Al Horr, 2016). Managers and HR professionals should be made aware of the importance of a comfortable and pleasant work space, but we should also keep it in mind for ourselves and take the little steps we can to improve our space. It’s a task that’s well suited to filling time when we are otherwise burned out from doing the hard work. The next time you need to find something productive to do at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, consider giving your workspace a little makeover.
Al Horr, Y., Arif, M., Kaushik, A., Mazroei, A., Katafygiotou, M., & Elsarrag, E. (2016). Occupant Productivity and Office Indoor Environment Quality: A Review of the Literature. Building and Environment(105) 369-389.
Maula, H., Hongisto, V., Östman, L., Haapakangas, A., Koskela, H. & Hyönä, J. (2016). The effect of slightly warm temperature on work performance and comfort in open-plan offices – a laboratory study. Indoor Air, 26: 286–297. doi:10.1111/ina.12209
Image from Dan Nguyen, CC.