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How psychology is reshaping the design of the workplace

The last few years have demonstrated that we don’t need to be in the office to get work done. But there is a difference between getting work done, and feeling inspired to innovate, collaborate and drive our organisations forward.

It seems for much of this to happen, the office - our most substantive representation of company vision and culture - still has a role to play. But not in the way it used to. No longer is the office a functional space with enterprise-grade internet and an instant coffee trolley.

Today, to make the office worth the trip, psychologists are encouraging organisations to ask “Where will employees be most happy and productive today?”

The answer to this question goes much deeper than creating a distinctive, state-of-the-art design.

Psychologists have identified how to leverage different design elements in the workplace for improved positive experience, expanded cognitive function, and more productive cultural and social collaboration. The measured, proven result is workplace design that delivers positive outcomes for both the people and the organisation.

To dive deeper into the benefits of workplace design, we’ve been talking to Kylie Sandland, co-founder and director, design psychology at Essence of Home, and Cassandra Kirk, head of workplace strategy and design at Axiom Workplaces.

When psychology reaches far beyond the couch

“There are many ways in which our environment affects how we think, feel and behave,” explains Sandland, describing how everything from office layout, to furniture and light, noise and colour, impact how we respond psychologically. This in turn, impacts our focus and performance at any given moment. 

“Research shows that the environment affects our mood, concentration, memory, engagement, productivity and even our ability to solve cognitive problems. This is why workplace design psychology can help organisations create optimum spaces.” 

How the innocuous office layout can play with your mind

In recent years, most businesses have moved to open plan or hot-desking models. While many purport to have made this decision in order to break down physical barriers, encouraging collaboration, typically cost-savings are high on the list of organisational priorities too.

While open plan offices have now been shown to improve communication and collaboration, they’ve also been shown to have a negative impact on speed, accuracy and memory when completing tasks.

Perhaps more concerning is the research that points to a 25% increase in stress and negative mood as a result of open-plan office noise. 

Sandland recalls a particular study where moving people from an open-plan area to a quiet zone improved cognitive performance by a startling 17%. Then again from a quiet room into an individual room - cognitive performance rose by 22%. 

Kirk notes that “...even two years ago, 70% of typical office floor space would be taken up by workstations. Now, it's more like 50% - sometimes less. People want to do their focus work at home, and use the office for collaboration. Those who want to do both focus work and collaboration at the office will typically require a quiet zone, or separate space for deep concentration,” she explains.

“There’s certainly a need for a balanced approach, and office design that encourages both collaboration where it's needed, as well as quiet concentration zones,” says Sandland.

Don't make light of light

Natural light is another imperative workplace design feature that has the ability to make or break our day. The relationship is predictable: the more natural light in a space, the more productive

And, of course, we all know that natural light impacts our circadian rhythm - anyone who’s experienced the horror of bad jet-lag can understand how detrimental it can be. But here’s another fun fact: a 2020 study reported that office workers sleep more hours each night and perform better when exposed to more sunlight during the day. 

Google took this research and ran with it, bathing its Chicago HQ in natural light via open offices along the perimeter of the building, coupled with an atrium that spanned six of its seven stories. Airbnb has understood the importance of light for years: designing their Portland, Oregon call centre to be an open space filled with natural light.

Biophilia and the happiness of the people

The University of Washington undertook a study at Amazon HQ in Seattle, where they reported increased levels of positive feeling and lowered levels of anxiety in people who visited the Seattle Spheres - an innovative space that is home to more than 40,000 plants.

Biophilic design is a principle that seeks to connect our inherent human need to affiliate with nature in the modern built environment. Incorporating these concepts into workplace design could help larger organisations to attract and retain talent, providing spaces where people enjoy spending their time, to counter any work stress or pressure that people may feel, but also to bolster creative thinking and cognitive performance for a sense of achievement. 

“Organisations need to make it easy to have a moment in your day that is calm and uplifting. Whether that is a seat amongst beautiful plants, or a quick sit in the courtyard of your office building, that experience can make the world of difference to a person’s day,” says Kirk. 

Sensory experiences we crave

The last few years have starved the humanity of the sensory experiences we had previously taken for granted. 

Now, when we do venture out, we’re looking for more than the functional trip to the supermarket or the office that we once had. This is why we’re seeing such a strong shift toward rethinking the workplace as an experiential hub. 

Whether through biophilia, musical vibes, specialist lighting, scents or just beautiful visual design, organisations are creating design cues that make the workplace a destination employees want to return to. It might be as spectacular as Instagram’s light forest, or as sustainably motivated as a climate-responsive installation

Either way, design enables organisations to stake their claim on a position, and to communicate it generously to their audience, while also helping people to feel connected, positive and able to do good work. 

Community first

Organisations that provide spaces for employees to connect are onto something. The rich relationships, sense of belonging and improved communication that can result are both profound and irreplaceable. 

Design plays a major role in encouraging people to gather and communicate openly. In fact, there is a watchword in this area of design: Resimercial. Yes! It's about taking design cues from the residential world to encourage feelings of accessibility and comfort, in order to promote open dialogue.

Designers can simulate residential settings with warm, inviting features, included, but not limited to furniture, materials, colours, biophilia, lighting and sounds. Think of a comfortable living room, but in the office. Think of a well-stocked kitchen, but in the workplace. Think quiet, comfortable and snug, but in your work building. 

Kirk subscribes to this kind of thinking. “Socialising is key to a positive mindset at work. People now prefer a cafe-style environment that feels more like a community hub than a traditional workplace.“

Google’s HQ in Mountain View, California has long subscribed to the Resimercial, despite the term being coined only recently. The Coffee Lab, an entire cafe within the office building that serves staff and visitors with coffee all day long, is just one of many social hubs where Google encourages people to meet.  

Those with a lesser budget and square footage can create a similar impact simply with premium coffee and a fool-proof machine, coupled with a cafe-like space in which to enjoy it. Any space that provides extra comfort and a social context in the office prevents employees from having to seek that experience elsewhere.

Explore more about creating your Destination Workplace.

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