- People who like their office are 31% more likely to like their jobs
- Sustainable design appears to improve productivity
- Flexibility is the most important aspect of good design, expert says
Anyone who remembers 1987 film "The Secret of my Success" will recall the powerful hold that a corner office with sweeping views over Manhattan had on a young and upwardly mobile Michael J Fox. More than a sharp suit or a beautiful secretary, having a nice office meant you had arrived.
Although the mindset of Wall Street circa 1987 is less predominant these days, connoisseurship for good office design still flourishes. But fast-forward 25 years and, rather than a lobby full of marble or an expensive art collection, it's now living walls and natural light that's most admired.
Peter Surrena, design director at trend forecasting agency PSFK, says good office design is an investment in perception for publicly-facing companies .
"This perception is not only what we see, but the story we're told. Touring your office with a potential client, explaining how the conference room was inspired by a bird's nest found only in a remote corner of the Auckland Islands—there's value there, it will be remembered and may give you the edge," he said.
"At the same time, you need to be smart about your investments. With design, and most anything else, it reaches a point where any increase thereafter is excessive. You could call this point 'the ultraviolet spectrum of design': it's there, but imperceptible. I believe the goal of great design is to solve the problem as efficiently and as beautifully as possible, without any excess."
For employees, a pleasant workplace is directly related to job satisfaction. According to a survey by the American Society of Interior Designers, people who liked their workplaces were 31% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs. Of those seeking work, nearly half said that a company's office space affected their decision on whether to accept a job.
Evidence suggests that, in well-designed offices, people work better, too.
A study by the Center for Health Design suggests that good layout benefits a company by 6% of an employee's salary, and good lighting and temperature by half a percent.
Sustainability also appears to have an impact on productivity. Australian researchers watched what happened when a small law firm and a stockbroking and research company moved into a 5 Green Star-rated space in their current building in Melbourne.
They found that sick leave was reduced by 39%, typing speed and accuracy improved by 9% and the lawyers' billable hours increased by 7%. Workers also self-reported fewer headaches and eye soreness.
Although there are office spaces where employees are able to enjoy lolling in a ball pit, getting to the lobby via a slide, having a meeting in an igloo, or getting tattooed in their lunch hour, keeping employees happy is a lot simpler: of 1,000 workers surveyed by Goodman Property, 63% professed loyalty to a company that is well-heated and well-lit.
It appears workers appreciate having control over their environment, too. An experiment by University of Exeter researchers found that workers who were allowed to "enrich" their work space with their own choice of plants and pictures worked faster and with more accuracy. A study published in Architectural Lighting magazine also noted that those who are able to dim overhead lights were more motivated, focused and productive.
Surrena nominates flexibility as the most important element of good office design.
"People seem to like open floor plans, and enjoy the "community table," but also need the option to go off and focus, experiment or just do something else. If you work at a smart company, then the focus should be on the quality of your final product, and leaving the process to the individual."
Surrena also believes that, rather than providing every toy or technology imaginable in the hopes that workers will think more creatively, an inspiring workplace is one that allows employees an escape.
"If you always have answers at your disposal, there is no process, and even worse, there are no original solutions. We need to rediscover the joy of problem-solving, and the freedom of not always having the answer," he says.
Similarly, although some businesses do benefit from a playful environment where workers feel comfortable spending a lot of time, Surrena says it's wise to help employees maintain boundaries between their work and personal life.
"While our work experience can help define who we are, it is only one aspect of our identity. It's important to leave, have adventures, meet new people, grow and then bring these ingredients back into the office space. Employees will feel more valued if you encourage their personal growth, with the only expectation being their contribution to the growth of others."