The author believes that the quality of life in the office takes its cues from design. She points to the failure of hoteling and blames basic human psychology – “People, like animals, seek territory, however small and inadequate.” She reminds readers that office design should reflect more than just “modern day thinking and cost-cutting measures,” and include an understanding of how people are as people. “When we walk through an office our heart, mind and body make sense of it simultaneously … Sounds, smells, temperature, lighting and privacy must be considered in relation to how people process information through psychological experience.” Freezing people don’t work efficiently; people in low chairs don’t make big decisions.

The article notes that design can be influential but can’t wholly create a desired employee behavior. If a client wants to create teamwork, a designer has to envision more than an open plan, furniture on wheels and diminished privacy. The designer must take into account three factors: what environment is the employee used to, what is his/her personality, and what the prevailing culture is. If company leadership encourages teamwork in its culture, then a designer can support it with a plan. In a competitive office where hoarding information is rewarded, an open office won’t create collaboration.

Even if collaboration is built into a company culture, designers are advised not to jump into set plans they think are teamwork-inducing. Eliminating all cubicles and replacing lamps with shared overheads should not be automatic. Personal control is the number one factor influencing a positive psychological response to office design. This has different implications for each individual – e.g. controlling the light source or allowing for privacy. Some achieve “personal control” through non-designer factors like flexible work schedules.

Psychology of the work environment is fundamental to productivity and employee satisfaction. Design can tap into cultural and experiential cues to affect mood. Color, for example, can be used to shape behavior. Lighting can be creatively used for mood modification. “You can even give the illusion of privacy by giving more light to a cubicle than to a walkway.” Focusing the light helps employees concentrate on their work. Supplying individual dimmers and desk lamps also allows employees a personal say in their office space.

We know that daylight is important, overhearing phone conversations is bothersome and that control over lighting, temperature and air flow translates into worker satisfaction, but economies trump psychology in the absence of quantities of hard data. The article ends with a call for more research on the effects of interior lighting, color, layout and furniture on psychology and productivity.

Source: Linda Burnett, Contract; June, 2004

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