Today there are lots of opinions about what makes the ideal office, but there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for success. Each company has its own perfect workspace waiting to be discovered and implemented. Think of office design as a form of non-verbal communication about your company to employees, clients, and potential hires. The layout, décor, lighting, and furnishings of your office send a message about your culture, the nature of your work, and how the company perceives itself. This message is one you can not only control, but use to improve employee satisfaction, impress clients, and attract top industry talent.
However you choose to decorate or arrange furniture, one key necessity is that the office space supports the work that needs to be done there. Another is that the design shift promotes the change you want to see happen, whether that’s an increase in productivity, awesome attitudes from employees, or a better first impression.
Depending on what you intend your move or remodel to accomplish, different office layouts may promote or inhibit your goals.
Goal: Improve Employee Satisfaction
In recent years the open office trend swept the business world off its feet due to the perception that employees working and interacting together all day would increase their happiness. Many owners and managers at companies as large as Eli Lilly, Facebook, and Rolls Royce decided to convert their workspaces completely, eliminating all or most private offices and cubicles in favor of long communal tables, bullpens, coffee lounges, and a few small private conference rooms. Facebook’s headquarters is simply one ten-acre room. But a few years after the trend first hit, some industries are finding that the open office isn’t achieving the boost to employee happiness its implementers intended. One literature review of workplace studies revealed that in 90% of the research, the open office floorplan led to higher stress, more conflict, and even an increase in sick days taken, since germs spread more easily.1
Open Office vs. Private Spaces
If most of your employees work in teams to do their job, some sort of open office layout might make them more satisfied. However, many will still desire some private space to work. On the other hand, if your employees require privacy to make phone calls, handle sensitive information, or need to focus for extended periods without disturbance, an open office is almost certain to make them less satisfied, not more. Ambient noise, distracting conversations, and anxieties about privacy plague many workers in open office environments. Balance can be struck by providing plenty of private spaces for workers to separate themselves for conversations or quiet work time.
In industries where employees handle a lot of data or spend lots of time staring at screens, privacy and quiet are essential to allow focus. If this sounds like your business, employee satisfaction is probably going to be best promoted by sticking with a traditional office or cubicle setup to allow privacy. Depending on the nature of the work, a business owner should also carefully consider the lighting in the workspace. Programmers or data analysts might need bulbs that reduce glare, while lawyers or case workers doing a lot of reading and note-taking might prefer natural light to a harsh fluorescent. Access to a window has been shown in multiple studies to improve employee satisfaction,2 as has a switch to softer LED lighting over harsh fluorescents. Exposure to dim or artificial light has been shown to increase both stress and sleepiness, neither of which is something a manager or owner wants to see in their employees, no matter what the industry.
Goal: Improve Employee Productivity
Improving employee happiness as we described above is one way to try and ramp up productivity, but more targeted layout strategies also exist. Respondents to a 2008 Gensler workplace survey stated that their productivity could improve by as much as 21% if their workplace were better designed. By all evidence it seems that an increase in productivity is correlated with an increase in options for workspace.
"When employees have different spaces available to them—their desk, a lounge area, a conference room or collaboration table—they tend to show more attention to all the tasks at hand." 4
However, that won’t hold true in every case. One of the challenges facing owners and managers redesigning their office is that they must design for their entire employee population. However, the ideal environment to maximize each individual’s productivity could differ. More than ever, today’s workplaces must promote productivity across many generations and backgrounds. This can be achieved for some by offering a variety of work environments in one space, but the transition away from the traditional office isn’t completely necessary.
Temperature: Environmental conditions as basic as ambient temperature and wall color can boost productivity. A study conducted by Helsinki University of Technology found that worker productivity was highest at 71° Fahrenheit, with productivity dropping off at temps higher than 73° and lower than 69-70°.5
Environmental conditions as basic as ambient temperature and wall color can boost productivity. A study conducted by Helsinki University of Technology found that worker productivity was highest at 71° Fahrenheit, with productivity dropping o at temps higher than 73° and lower than 69-70°.5
When it comes to color, a national survey of office workers chose blue as their ideal surroundings, but the truth might be more complex. A study at University of Texas found that subjects identified as having a high ability to ignore their surroundings were more productive in rooms with bright colors like red, while the more distractible subjects worked with greater focus in a blue-green environment.6 Depending on the use of the space in question and the personalities of your workers, colors along the spectrum could provide the boost you need.
Goal: Impressing Existing and Potential Clients
If your intention is to impress new and current clients with your office remodel or move, it will be to your benefit to focus on details like color for their benefit too. Monochromatic spaces evoke a sense of dullness. Bright colors could cross the line into an ambiance of cheapness, while rich jewel tones of any shade seem to evoke warmness.7
"If you’re leaning toward the open office strategy, it’s important to consider where you will meet with incoming clients."
Studies have told us all sorts of interesting things about consumer perceptions of products based on shapes, color, and presentation. For example, people find curves more appealing than straight lines.8 Decorative objects like art, plants, vases, or statues should be carefully chosen, and keep in mind that including too many could take the first impression of a client from tasteful office to secondhand shop or warehouse. In many cases of décor, less is more.
If you’re leaning toward the open office strategy, it’s important to consider where you will meet with incoming clients. Simply plopping down in the middle of the bullpen could impose the relaxed nature of your leadership upon them, or it could lead them to not take you seriously. That’s yet another reason private spaces should be available in any open office.
Goal: Attracting Top Talent
One of the primary reasons for the open office craze was the notion that Millennials entering the workforce would prefer those collaborative environments over closed offices or assigned cubicles. It is true that today’s workforce considers the design of the office important, especially when weighing job offers. One study found that while salary is 45% of what makes a job attractive, the combination of workplace culture (32%) and the design of the office (16%) can outweigh the appeal of a higher pay grade. The same study also found that appealing facilities doubled the chance of someone accepting a job offer regardless of the combination of other variables.9
Luckily, attractive design can be present in any kind of office layout, as can spatial flexibility. Meeting rooms and break rooms can be enhanced to provide quiet, private work areas when not in use for meetings, or even alternative break or dining areas. Just because everyone has their own office or space doesn’t mean the rooms outside it have to be rigid in their definition as only for one specific purpose.
If you’re overseeing a small team, make sure you bring them along for the ride when it comes to input about the new office design and what their needs are. Though the manager will ultimately make the best overall decision for the majority, knowing what concerns will need to be addressed at the individual level is valuable. Small businesses of 50 or more employees may not have the one-on-one luxury, but a survey or breakout sessions could still reap valuable feedback.
Every office space should be designed with intention, not by accident. An owner’s commitment to creating a space where employees can grow and innovate will not go unnoticed by anyone who enters the building, whatever the purpose of their presence. Ask yourself what you want the office to achieve for you—and then, go out and make it real.