Have you ever found yourself nodding off at your desk after lunch? Or maybe you wished you were anywhere else besides your stuffy office building. Most of us have been there, and it isn’t necessarily our faults. Office and building managers can take measures to address the late afternoon slump as well as many other factors that affect office productivity. Many of these measures are low cost or even free. Others take more time and investment. Either way, the measures should be taken with the occupants’ well being and resulting productivity in mind.
Ergonomics as a field has been around for a few centuries but was interestingly enough studied heavily during World War II. The cockpits of planes and tanks needed to house soldiers while also being compact and keep controls within reach of the users. So, the underlying goal was to design high-performing equipment that allowed the average sized human to use the equipment with general ease and comfort for a certain amount of time. We now think of ergonomics in terms of rolling desk chairs with lumbar support and adjustable arms, for example. Ergonomics has come a long way and continues to benefit the evolving human who tends to spend more time sitting on a piece of furniture than ever. Once the ergonomics of furniture are correct for each individual, their comfort level increases, and so does their productivity.
We also know that there are wide ranges of height, weight, and abilities among populations of office workers. Providing a base level of comfort is important in office furniture as well as providing adjustability when appropriate. That’s why most office chairs have adjustable seat heights and arm positions. These features allow almost anyone to adjust the chair and maintain a ninety-degree bend in their knees and arms while their feet are flat on the floor. They can then type, scroll, and surf the web without strain or discomfort. Lower back problems plague many office workers and adjustments in furniture settings as well as activity levels can improve these symptoms drastically. I have enjoyed seeing the increase in popularity of adjustable height desks, so office workers can easily shift from sitting to standing. The reduced sitting time and movement and balance required to stand while working is extremely beneficial.
In addition to quality, adjustable furniture pieces, lighting can play a big role in the productivity of workers. We have all had the office job with a corner office with skyline views, right? No, unfortunately, many of us have worked in the middle of clusters of workstations or cubicles. This setup is not all bad, but it does often decrease the amount of natural sunlight that reaches our desks. Natural light has been shown to increase concentration and performance, especially in classrooms of students. In an office setting, the same principle applies. Access to natural light will increase workers’ productivity as well as benefit their circadian rhythms. If a worker’s circadian rhythm is functioning properly, chances are, he or she will sleep better. A well-rested worker is much more productive. There are of course many factors that play into a worker’s health, natural patterns, and energy levels, but office design can have a positive impact in multiple ways.
Private and Public Spaces
Have you ever overheard a conversation at work that you probably shouldn’t have? Oops. There are ways that office design can help both the private and public meetings and conversations happen without hiccups like that. Most of the offices we have worked in or visited have an entry or receptionist area, workstation area and/or private offices, and supporting spaces like restrooms, print rooms, and break rooms.
Office design can elegantly and almost imperceptibly guide both workers and guests to their respective “positions” or where they should spend their time while in the office. For guests, most reception or entry areas feature a visual “target” like a receptionist desk or wayfinding sign. It is immediately and visually apparent where the guest should make their first stop. With these guides in place, it would be unnatural behavior to bypass the obvious “stops” and waltz into the more private office or workstation area. Similarly, workers who are meant to be there all day, will pass through reception and on to their workstation with ease. They know where they are meant to go. On the way to their workstation, they may pass by an executive’s office. If the door is closed, they might assume that the executive is on the phone, in a meeting, or simply, not in the office. It would be unnatural behavior to swing the door open to start a conversation.
So, these simple approaches can visually aid anyone in the understanding of public vs. private space. A workplace’s culture also defines the appropriate noise level as well as how formal or casual interactions normally are.
Most offices have the opportunity to give workers a view to the outside, even if the view is not necessarily picturesque. In addition to the natural light discussion above, viewing the outdoors is a stellar way to reduce stress. It is also important for workers to look away from computer and phone screens throughout the day to reduce eye strain. If your office does happen to have a picturesque view, showcase it as an amenity for your guests and workers alike to enjoy. it is best if views are accessible to everyone and not just a select few private offices.
Studies have shown that giving users control of certain aspects of their surroundings increases user satisfaction of the space. Lighting is a major component of user control. Workers should have ample ambient lighting in addition to task lighting. If the light levels are adjustable on an individual basis, that can be even better. Computer screen backlights should also be adjustable to avoid eye strain and high levels of blue light exposure. Many applications have “dark mode” ability to change white backgrounds and pages to gray and black, which is easier on the eyes.
If windows or skylights are near a worker’s desk, the angle of light hitting their computer screen should be designed to reduce glare. Additionally, adjustable blinds should be installed to give worker’s control over just how much natural light comes in their area at any given time.
The temperature inside an office continues to be a source of heartache for many. Depending on the weather outside, how warm our clothes are or are not, we could be miserably hot or shivering cold while trying to work. These temperature extremes do not help with productivity levels as you might imagine. Temperature can be a subjective metric among workers, since one person may feel hot yet sit next to a person who seems to be freezing all the time. I’m the person that is freezing all the time. So, how can these ranges in temperature perception be addressed? One of the most immediate changes an office can tackle is understanding which parts of the building are coldest and hottest at certain times of the day and year. If there are any drafty or stuffy areas, these should be addressed by the office or facilities manager. An upgrade in building systems like heating and cooling as well as insulation and windows can make a big impact on the variability in temperature and comfort of a space. Individual heaters and fans can give workers control over their individual temperature.
Earlier, I mentioned public and private spaces in an office setting. These are often respectively louder and quieter spaces. The noise level depends on the office’s culture and type of work as well. So, noise levels should be controlled in a way that is appropriate for the workplace. Many open workstations have enough distance and barriers between individuals, that conversations and phone calls are not too distracting. There should also be options for private meetings and conversations, which are usually behind closed doors. Workers who get distracted in more open environments may benefit from divider screens between workstations and perhaps noise cancelling headphones. Most office spaces have a white noise system, whether you knew it or not. These systems work best during quiet working hours and help typing and other office sounds from being a distraction. Creating noise is part of every workday and hopefully is a major part of collaboration and celebrating successes.
Conclusion…or is it?
Stay tuned for my next blog post which covers the larger scale components of office design that impact productivity. These include giving workers choices on where to work as well as access to nature. In the meantime, consider your best and worst office experiences. How did these impact your productivity and how could they have been improved?