Nobody enjoys turning up to work in a grim, featureless cubicle day after day. The measurable impact our surroundings have on us is, increasingly, the subject of study. Multiple studies show that a drab office is more than just a downer; it has a serious impact on mood and engagement and our ability to improve productivity.
“I know this”, you might say. It’s one reason that companies such as KPMG, Lendlease and PricewaterhouseCoopers have moved into the attention-grabbing, state-of-the-art buildings offices in Barangaroo on Sydney’s harbour front.
However while research shows 90 per cent of workplaces are investing time and money into employee health and wellbeing programs, many neglect to consider the quality of the indoor environment itself.
While the cost of providing better quality workplaces is often considered a limiting factor, in fact research from the US has found that spending just US$40 per person, per year on indoor air quality resulted in a US$6500 increase in employee productivity.
Here’s why you should be taking your physical workspace seriously; it has more impact on outcomes than you think.
1. Air quality
New research out of Harvard and Syracuse Universities shows that the quality of the office environment itself has a significant impact on thinking, health and productivity.
During the study, employees were tested under two different conditions; one involved workers undertaking their duties in typical office building conditions; in another they undertook their regular tasks in a simulated “green condition” where ventilation was improved, and levels of carbon dioxide and emissions were reduced.
They found that employees in the ‘green’ environment performed 61 per cent better on cognitive tasks than in the standard office conditions.
And by doubling the ventilation in the green condition environment, cognitive performance increased by more than 100 per cent.
2. Natural light
68 percent of employees complain about the lighting situation in their offices. And a study published at the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that employees with windows in the workplace received 173 per cent more white light exposure during work hours and slept an average of 46 minutes more per night than employees who did not have the natural light exposure in the workplace.
“The study results confirm that light during the natural daylight hours has powerful effects on health,” says senior study author and neurologist Phyllis Zee.
Interestingly, another (slightly contradictory) study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggests that, while bright lights can make workers more alert, dim lights can make them more creative and trigger a “risky, explorative processing style.”
3. Plants and greenery
Psychological researchers have studied the brain and stress responses after exposure to contact with nature and have unequivocally come to the conclusion that it reduces stress; it’s hard-wired into the “old” parts of our brain.
And now the world’s first study into the long-term impacts of plants in an office environment has found that the the introduction of plants into “lean” office spaces (that had a desert-like aesthetic) resulted in a 15 per cent increase in productivity. Workers also reported higher levels of air quality, improved powers of concentration and a general increase in workplace satisfaction.
In part, “it appears…this is because a green office communicates to employees that their employer cares about them and their welfare,” says Alex Haslam, study author and psychology professor at the University of Queensland.
4. Office design
The work of architects and interior designers is also being led by thinking on the wellbeing impacts of physical office space.
“The influence of residential design on the workplace has become more relevant”, says Kyrstyan McLeod, interior designer at multidisciplinary design firm HASSELL.
This goes so far as to assign home design elements to areas in the office; McLeod says it’s common to describe areas as “the kitchen” or “the lounge room” when designing an office space.
“There’s a big push for attraction and retention of staff and one of the ways of making people want to come and work in your business is to provide an environment in which working is very pleasurable, and comfortable.”
The next phase has been the “activity-based” work trend, where office spaces and furniture are optimised for specific tasks, “whether that’s sitting down and reading a document, sit down and type, or stand for a while and discuss stuff.”
In her recent work in co-working spaces, McLeod says she’s trying to create a feeling of home with access to natural light, and natural ventilation.
“It’s so essential to create an experience in the co-working space or office on a daily basis.”
Image credit: HASSELL’s recent design of Hub Southern Cross, located in the historic Mail Exchange building in Melbourne.
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