Designed to Perfection

I was recently asked whether anyone had completed any research into the effect office design had on employee productivity and effectiveness.  Lying behind the question was a feeling that open-plan environments are disruptive, especially to managers who can appear to be permanently available to their employees.

It is an interesting point and something I have quite strong opinions on myself, so I decided to research the subject further.

I first thought about the links between office design and performance in the 1980’s when the company I worked for relocated my team's London office from the fifteenth floor of Centre Point to new premises on the south side of Southwark Bridge.  As soon as I heard of the planned move I contacted the office services manager and arranged to meet him at the new offices so that I could secure the best area for my team.   Centre Point, a tower block on the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, was a relatively narrow building meaning that virtually everyone had fantastic views from their desk over London, so my main criteria in visiting the new offices was to secure an area with lots of natural light that was away from the lifts and where my team would not be disturbed by people walking through to other areas.

Interestingly, when I got to the new offices, I found I wasn’t the only manager there making a bid for the best areas.  The office services manager had been inundated with requests such as mine – not to mention the offer of several bottles of whisky!

In researching the subject further, it seems that the actions of the managers involved in that particular office move were not misplaced.  It is true that we were more likely motivated by petty rivalries and one-upmanship than by an understanding of the psychology of office design, but our instincts were correct – some positions are better than others.

As with everything, the design of offices has today become something of a science.  We no longer look upon office buildings as perfunctory spaces to house staff, but as icons that reflect the values of the organisation and that can have an influence on the attitudes and performance of our staff.

In broad terms the psychology of office design seems to be divided into the following areas:

External appearance.  It’s amazing how many beautiful office buildings I have visited only to be disappointed by the state of the interior- it’s as though the buildings were designed to be looked at, not worked in.  Take the Lloyds of London building as an example – iconic building from the outside, but the interior has the heart and soul of a science fiction film with grey concrete and steel pillars everywhere.

There is no doubt that employees like to work in a building that looks nice.  It’s hardly surprising as most of us also want to live in buildings we like the look of.  But if given the choice between a great exterior or a great interior, the interior would win hands down.

Light.  There is now a body of research and evidence to prove that people perform better if they can see out of a window and there is plenty of natural light in the office.  Research by Farley and Veitch in 2001 showed that close proximity to a window increased job satisfaction, decreased intention to quit and improved general well-being.  Indeed, in recognition of the health benefits of natural light and a view of the outside world, access to a window is now a legal requirement Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway.

Interestingly, the research also suggests that while any view is better than none, a rural view is better than a cityscape.  This was supported by a 1986 study that found that people without windows were more likely to decorate their offices with landscape posters than with other scenes.   

Colour.   In the 1940s the Swiss psychologist Dr Max Lüscher published a paper arguing that the preferences a person has for different colours can be used as a determinant of their personality.  Although Lüscher’s work has never been fully proven, it did spawn a body of research into the associations between mood and colour known as ‘colour psychology’. 

In a link with the findings quoted above, it appears that one of the best colours to promote wellbeing, calmness and happiness in the workplace is green, which is why so many organisations are painting coffee areas and restaurants in shades of green and installing pot plants. 

Internal space.  Whereas once upon a time the design work was over once a building was completed, today many organisations devote a great deal of thought to where people should be located to optimise everything from employee health to the company’s environmental credentials.   For example, whereas at one time photocopiers were located as close to employees as possible to minimise the time wasted in walking to and from it, today they are located further away to both increase the exercise people get during a working day and to act as a disincentive to excessive use.

All this talk of research and analysis however diminishes the sense of passion that many people have about the design of a workplace.  As a ‘best-practice’ example, no one extols the benefits great design can have on people better than Ron Dennis, the CEO of McLaren Group.  Despite being the head of one of the country’s leading Formula 1 teams, a super-car manufacturer and technology consultancy, Dennis found the time to be intimately involved in the design of the premises. 

His motivation was to have everyone work in an environment that reflected his passion for engineering perfection, grace and beauty.  Whether it is the cleanliness of the plain white floors or the hidden wastepaper bins built into the desks, everything about this iconic building personifies the standards the company sets.

More importantly, the McLaren workers describe how their working environment helps creates the great sense of pride they have in the company as well as acting as a constant reminder of the standards they continually strive to achieve.

Click here to watch a short video presented by Kevin McCloud, the Grand Designs presenter, which includes an interview with Robin Dennis and other McLaren employees.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.