Office Design That Enhances Productivity

Employees are sensitive to their work environment. According to a U.S.-based study conducted by international architectural firm, Gensler, environmental factors including lighting, spatial layout and even décor affect employee productivity levels, which ultimately affects the bottom line. Organizations that have an efficient and open-concept floor plan that promotes socializing and interaction, combined with unique and visually stimulating interior design concepts, have happier employees and are more successful overall, according to the 2008 survey. The same basic design principles apply to a home office space — whether there is one employee, or 20. When it comes to designing a space that will sustain high productivity levels while ensuring long-term employee welfare, here are a few basic tips to follow:

Let There Be Light

Lighting is arguably the most vital component when it comes to measuring workplace productivity levels. Improper lighting can lead to eyestrain, headaches, a sore neck as a result of craning, nausea, double vision, itching/burning eyes and fatigue that can, in turn, lead to low employee morale and an unhealthy work environment. The most common sources of these symptoms include:

1) The use of standard fluorescent tube lamps as overhead lighting; and
2) An over-lit office and excessive background lighting when using a computer monitor.

Too many bright lights compete with the luminosity of a computer monitor. While only 25% of the general population is sensitive to the flickering effect of fluorescent lights, the jarring, blue-hued light that results from the ballast component of fluorescent tubes causes extreme headaches and nausea for those who are affected.

The solution? It’s simple. Work spaces that have natural lighting make for an ideal work environment, but only if the brightness level of natural sunlight can be controlled through the use of louvered blinds, as too much sunlight can cause glare on a computer monitor and reduce visibility. A computer should be positioned at a right angle to a window to reduce glare and prevent excessive background lighting.

To achieve proper illumination that does not pose any health risks to employees, a layered lighting technique is best. Layered lighting combines natural lighting and warm task lighting in different intensities and at different angles. Contrary to commonly used lighting techniques, the primary source of lighting in an office should not be located directly over an employee’s workstation. Instead, sconces or directional recessed lighting (also referred to as pot lights) should be positioned around the perimeter of the space, allowing for lighting to bounce off the ceiling and walls to create a softer, more inviting source of illumination. This form of ambient lighting works best with warm-coloured bulbs. Avoid purchasing bulbs that promise a “daylight” effect — the blue-hued lighting has similar ramifications, as fluorescent tube lighting adds to visual strain.

desk_lampTo bring the layered lighting technique full circle, it’s important to provide employees with a task lamp that has an adjustable arm for positioning light on the desk where it’s needed. An adjustable lamp head allows those with a computer to customize the height and direction of the fixture to prevent the underside of the bulb from causing eyestrain, headaches and glare. Position a desk lamp beside a computer monitor or use a floor lamp that is located behind the employee, slightly above the head, to minimize glare from the bulb. Do not place a secondary light source behind a computer monitor — this will result in excessive background lighting and will make the monitor difficult to see.


Ergonomically Correct Furniture

Working at a station that doesn’t comply with ergonomic standards will result in long-term physical pain, namely repetitive strain injuries.

Consider the following guidelines when testing for ergonomically-correct work stations, according to Julius Panero Martin Zelnik in their book Human Dimension Interior Space:

• Elbows should rest at 90° in relation to the keyboard
• Feet should plant flat on the floor
• Knees should rest gently at approximately 90° with the option for legs to stretch out unobstructed
• The back should be well supported and straight
• Wrists should remain in line with the forearm (no tilting up or down to reach keyboard keys)
• Eyes should rest naturally and be looking directly in front at the monitor
• Neck should not crane to look down or up at the monitor

Ergonomic chairs provide pneumatically adjustable height variation, recline options, widening and telescopic arm rests, breathable upholstery materials (avoid faux leather and vinyl) and stable bases with wheels that make getting up from the chair easier.

Ergonomic desks are made to work with ergonomic chairs to produce the least amount of physical strain as possible. The most important thing to consider when purchasing an office desk and chair is how the two pieces will fit together. The ergonomic standard height of an office desk is 29 to 30” (74 to 76cm), as measured from the floor to the top of the desk surface. This desk height is meant to work with a task chair that has a minimum seat height of 14” (35.5cm) and at least 5-7” of thigh clearance (13-18cm) without the hindrance of a desk skirt, lowered panel or pencil drawer.

Ergonomic studies are based on anthropometrics — a fancy word for the study of average human dimensions, with the key word being “average”. This means that there is no “one size fits all” office chair or desk because data is based on females of 5’5” (170cm) height, and males of 6’0” (185cm) height. To add further discrepancy to ergonomic standards, all anthropometric measurements are taken without shoes — obviously, the comfort level of some ergonomically correct furnishings will vary depending on both men and women’s choice of shoe heel.

For taller- or shorter-than-average workers, additional measures must be taken to implement ergonomic strategies, such as a low foot stool, so that feet aren’t left dangling. Before committing to a desk and chair, workers should test the combination for at least 120 uninterrupted minutes of sitting and using the computer while assessing for any soreness, numbness or strain. Save the trendy furniture for the reception area — in active work stations, functional furnishings will result in better employee health and less emotional and physical exhaustion.


ABOVE: Layered lighting, ergonomic furnishings, a neutral colour scheme and inspirational artwork positioned in front of employees help make this workplace functional and visual stimulating. Design by Vancouver Better Office Inc. Photo by Yvon Ouellet.

Choose the perfect colour scheme

Choosing the perfect combination of hues can be tricky because the colours should take into account the personality of the company, and also appeal to the majority of employees.

Colours elicit emotional and physical responses from people who are exposed to them for extended periods of time. According to Jeanne Kopacz in her book Color in Three Dimensional Design, vibrant, high-intensity hues like canary yellow, fire engine red and flamingo pink are described as energetic, power colours — perfect for an advertising agency that has employees with extroverted personalities. On the other hand, power colours have been known to elicit feelings of restlessness, anxiety and aggression, resulting in an intimidating environment for introverted individuals.

High-intensity colours like the ones described above have higher saturation levels and are best suited as accent walls (too much of any one colour can be overwhelming). In general, there are two major colour families: warm and cool. Warm colours like red, orange, yellow and pink typically appeal to fewer people in a working environment; whereas cool colours like blue, green and purple instill feelings of relaxation and calmness. Cool colours also encourage focus and cause less strain on the human eye, according to Kopacz. The most commonly used colours for the office space are neutral colours (black, white, grey and brown) for good reason. Neutral colours work well in a professional environment because they are widely appealing. To create a dynamic, engaging and inspiring work environment, opt for a neutral colour scheme that incorporates pops of colour through accessories, wall art, area rugs and accent walls.

When it comes time to paint walls, avoid a glossy finish, as this will enhance glare and will be counterproductive to the layered lighting technique. Dark colours tend to absorb light while light colours reflect it. This means that a lighter wall colour will require less light fixtures to illuminate the space, according to Caryn Tolpa, Staples Editor of the article “Bright Ideas for Home Office Lighting”.

ABOVE: Workstations positioned perpendicular to windows helps prevent glare on computer monitors. Roller blinds, venetian blinds or vertical blinds would further help reduce brightness and eye strain for workers. Design by Skylab Architecture for North Advertising. Photo by Andrew Rubtsov.

Inspirational Decorative Elements

Abstract sculpture, colourful wall art and the interesting collection of antique vases in the office reception area are all examples of decorative design elements that are meant to beautify the office space. Why? Because a beautiful space is inviting and makes people feel happy — a concept that is commonly reserved for an office’s welcoming area, but overlooked when it comes to workers’ spaces.

Beautiful spaces do indeed make people happy, and according to Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, happiness leads to higher productivity levels. “If people are in a good mood on a given day, they’re more likely to have creative ideas that day, as well as the next day, even if we take into account their mood that next day.” Anyone who has been overcome by the joy that was brought on by an exquisite hotel room or a refined restaurant dining area can understand that good design affects mood.

Wall art is the easiest way to introduce colour and visual interest to an office. Unique pieces of art that feature interesting and evocative subject matter like colourful abstract works, painterly scenes and fun imagery are most successful in providing employees with visual stimulation. In some offices, a live wall is a great way to introduce an organic element and infuse the space with natural colour.

Avoid installing works of art that are overly textbased in areas where employees are responsible for text-heavy work, such as in a marketing firm or a publishing company. Text-based art is very popular (especially works that feature inspirational quotes) but can be distracting and counter-productive for professionals who are prone to writer’s block.

Accessories offer a fun way to play with colour and create a more inviting space. Personalized accessories such as artifacts from a recent trip or a beautifully framed family photo make employees feel more connected to their environment, which can boost employee morale and happiness. Accent chairs upholstered in a bold pattern can be used for occasional seating to add texture, colour and a unique statement to any space. Potted plants and flowers help boost creativity and productivity levels and look great, too.

The Texas A&M University research team discovered that males generated 15% more ideas when surrounded by flowers, while females were able to generate more flexible solutions to problems when in the presence of plants and flowers.


ABOVE: Interesting lighting, fun furnishings and an eye-catching wall make this meeting room an inspirational space to conduct brainstorming sessions. Designed by ThoughtSpace for BBC Knowledge. Photo by Andrew Rubtsov.

Sufficient lighting, comfortable furniture, pleasant colours and an inspiring ambiance will positively affect employees’ moods and states of mind. Another study conducted by Gensler in 2006 found that four out of five professionals (79%) of UK-based employees say the quality of their work environment is very important to their sense of job satisfaction.

Providing professionals with a visually stimulating and functional work place is in an employer’s best interest. Some of the stress that comes with maintaining high productivity levels will be alleviated once employees believe a genuine effort has been made to provide them with a pleasant work experience. In some cases, employers may want to consider how a drastic renovation will be a viable investment in the company’s well-being. But for others, making simple changes like providing employees with ergonomic furnishings, additional task lighting and an updated space in terms of decor will make a surprisingly substantial impact.

By: Tania LaCaria
Tania LaCaria is a freelance writer and an
experienced Interior Designer who has worked for
some of Toronto’s most reputable interior design firms.
She now owns and operates TLC Design Decor and
currently lives and works in Central America with her fiancé.

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