How your workplace is affecting your productivity

April 8, 2015 Uli Aschenbrenner No Comments

Having been involved with a number of startups, I know how easy it can be to put your workplace environment lower down on your list of priorities. Getting something off the ground and money flowing in can become all consuming tasks, and every dollar spent on furnishings could have been spent on growing the business.

What’s interesting though, is how health and wellness in the workplace has become a compelling issue in the business community, with huge sums of money being put into it (take a look at Apple’s $5 Billion project).

The reason why? Evidence shows poor workplace design has been associated to an increased risk of asthma, diabetes, a poor BMI (Body Mass Index) and overall fatigue, but a well designed workplace can elevate mood, concentration and stimulation of creative ideas, as well as productivity and innovation that directly impact the bottom line.

The reality is our environment affects our life in a variety of ways. Your favourite shop or restaurant have a great environment, with good lighting, texture, colours, temperature and friendly staff. The home and area you live in makes you feel safe, healthy, inspired or a part of a community, and the workplace you go to makes you feel either uncomfortable, bored and dull, or invigorated, excited and insired to build something special.

If you want to spruce up your workplace, it doesn’t necessarily take much.

Here are 10 ways to make simple design changes that can give your staff more motivation and improve your company’s productivity as a whole.


1. Improve Lighting

Better workplace lighting (whether it be natural or artificial light) has been linked to a 15% reduction in absenteeism in office environments, with reports of increases from 3 – 20 percent attributed to better lighting levels. Considering lighting costs have decreased significantly with the introduction of LED lights, this is a simple and cost effective way to improve productivity. Some considerations for lighting are:

  1. Natural light – This doesn’t have to be direct sunlight (it plays havoc on screens!), but filtered light can compliment artificial light significantly.
  2. Angles – Consider the flow of light in your office space, and where or how your desk is positioned in relation to this.
  3. Ambient light – Depending on how much natural light you have in your room, ambient lighting should be layered. Rather than simply having a single light source, try overlapping and complimenting overhead lights with floor or desk lamps.
  4. Screen Brightness – If you’re spending your day in front of a screen it’s important to keep your screen brightness relative to your environment. If you’d like this done for you, there is even software to assist.
  5. Shade – While most of the office world are concerned about getting enough light, some are being affected by too much. Adding some sheer curtains can soften light and reduce glare in a room.


2. Regulate the temperature.

No one likes to freeze their butt off, or get sweaty at work. Difference in temperature in the workplace is a very serious consideration – so much so, that the federal government in Australia produced an 11,000 word document entitled ‘Air conditioning and thermal comfort in Australian Public Service offices’. The document outlined an office that’s too hot or cold can lead to significant decreases in productivity (as much as 20% in some studies), as well as grumpy staff with low morale. According to the document, while there was no “perfect” temperature, the most comfortable and productive was between 20-24C (68-75F) in winter (to account for winter clothing), and 23-26C (73-79F) in summer (accounting for lighter clothing). office space design

3. Space and Layout.

While office space seems to still be quite a contentious issue, considering the space and layout for your workplace is something worth doing. Open spaced offices tend to increase collaboration (provided there aren’t more than 8 people), while closed offices can offer more privacy and stronger relationships because of it. In research from the University of California, Irvine, staff in cubicles receive 29% more interruptions than those in private offices and those who are interrupted frequently report a 9% higher rate of exhaustion. Businesses that offer open-plan spaces do report an uplift in morale, and are often significantly cheaper to set up, but perhaps the best layout is a mix of both, with team-meeting spaces, community spaces (a lounge or cafe area for lunch) and enclaves (spaces for three to four people to quickly get together and have a meeting on the fly). office

4. Noise levels.

One of the biggest complaints with an open-plan office is the constant distraction and difficulty in concentration due to noise levels. The more complex the role, the quieter people will want the environment. In environments with white noise, or sound masking, staff report improvements of up to 38 percent for performance of simple tasks and 27 percent for complex tasks. To improve the noise in your workplace, considerations for noise levels include physical barriers, office layout, flooring materials, wall construction and ceiling height. lowe_campbell_ewald_headquarters_office_design_13

5. Air & Airflow.

Absenteeism is a massive cost to businesses. Not only in lost working time, but also in rearranging tasks, staff schedules and pressure on other staff to pick up the slack. The air is filled with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and is one of the leading causes of recurring absenteeism. In 2009, a Michigan State study found that LEED buildings, reduced absenteeism by 50 percent. According to the study, workers in LEED buildings were less likely to be affected by asthma and other respiratory illnesses and reported less instances of depression and stress, so having adequate air flow can save your business significant sums of money. office plants

6. Nature & Oxygen.

Humans love the outdoors. After all, it is, kind of, our natural environment. While not everyone wants to trek through Nepal, being in the outdoors, or at least bringing some of the outdoors indoors, invigorates people. Adding plants to your workplace can significantly improve productivity, as well as decrease air pollutants and create oxygen. Kamal Meattle (a researcher) showed how introducing three types of plants into an office in New Delhi, increased productivity by 20%, Cardiff University published a study, which indicated a 15% improvement in productivity, and the University of Queensland, Australia, also published a study with a 15% improvement in productivity. According to the findings, the three main plants to have are:

  1. Areca palm,
  2. Mother-in-law’s tongue, and
  3. Money plant


7. Ergonomics

We spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting down every day, and research shows that it’s killing us in pretty much every way possible. Having ergonomic furniture helps staff to be comfortable and more likely to move around (rather than being stiff and having a sore back). According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 86 percent of workers experience some discomfort from office furniture, so chances are this is an area you could improve. office design

8. Art

I must admit, this is an area I have learnt to appreciate more. I always viewed art as a bit of a wishy-washy thing that doesn’t really have a tangible value. The reality though, is that the arts contribute to a significant portion of the GDP in Australia ($86 Billion in fact), which is ahead of the transport industry. Having art at your workplace shows what your culture is like, what your company values, and whether you care about the way your staff feel. In a survey conducted by the Business Committee for the Arts and the International Association of Professional Art Advisors of more than 800 staff of 32 companies that displayed art in the workplace:

  • 78% of staff surveyed agreed workplace art helps reduce stress.
  • 94% agreed it enhances the work environment.
  • 84% agreed it was evidence of their employer’s interest in improving the quality of life in and out of the workplace.
  • 64% agreed it increases creativity and productivity.
  • 67% agreed it enhances morale.
  • 82% indicated that art is important in the work environment.
  • 73% wanted more art in their workplace, claiming it helps make them feel more ‘motivated’ and ‘inspired.


9. Sensory variability & stimulation

Experience is all about stimulating your senses and the meaning you associate with it. Having a bland, grey office with grey desks and black computers is hardly an environment stimulating for the senses and doesn’t really say great things to your staff about the way you run a business. Ensuring your office is inviting with the use of texture, colours and smell will help stimulate your staff and create an environment that’s welcoming. smell

10. Smell

We all know that guy who insists on bringing fish-based lunches to work (admittedly, that person has been me). While stinking up the workplace with food is bad, it’s usually temporary (cross check the fridge). Regular smells on the other hand, are often overlooked when it comes to a workplace environment, but it’s actually our strongest sense. Shimizu in Japan (a construction company) did a month long study, finding operators made 54 percent fewer keypunch errors while sniffing a lemon aroma, 33% fewer with jasmine, and 20% fewer with lavender. It’s not exactly a fool-proof study, so I’m not saying you should drizzle lemon juice around work, but there might be some considerations to creating a more ‘nasal-friendly’ workplace. Hayden-Place-Cuningham-Office-6


11. Change management

Of course making all of these changes should be done with the consideration and buy in from your staff. Changing things on a whim doesn’t tend to go down so well, as it can be a stressful experience for many people, especially when they don’t feel they have any say or control over it. Giving your staff choice in itself helps productivity, so it’s important to involve your staff in any decisions you make to change the workplace environment.

Photo credit: willsfca / Foter / CC BY-ND Images courtesy of: wework, autodesk, IPG media, Ideo, McCann Erickson, Droga5, Innocean, VicSuper, Lowe Campbell Ewald & Cuningham Group Architecture.

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