office design and productivity

It’s a fact. Americans spend SO much time at work. Almost as much time as they spend sleeping. When people are spending at least one third of their day at the office, shouldn’t the office be a pleasant environment to work?

If you’re trying to make your office a better place to work, or make your employees more engaged and productive, maybe the answer lies in how your office is set up – the floorplan, position of furniture, and overall look and feel of your workspace.

Gensler, the world’s largest architecture and design firm, conducted a workplace study about the connection between creativity, innovation, work performance and office design. Gensler identified the employees and companies at the top of their game and then studied how they used their workspaces. They found that those “innovators” had more access to a variety of workspaces, and more freedom to choose when and where they wanted to work.

office design affects employee innovationThe goal is to get you thinking about your office layout and design as being a strategic business opportunity and tool, and not an afterthought. You want your workspace to cultivate and encourage high-performing employees, so your workplace must be designed to allow for that to happen. We explore some office design trends and give you a framework for how to determine what design is best for your workspace.

You might want to think twice about an open office layout

In part, driven by the increase in flexible working schedules, open office layouts grew in popularity over the last decade. They are said to cultivate “openness, transparency, and collaboration.” In an open office, when you tear down the cubicle walls that keep employees separate from each other, you would also, metaphorically speaking, break down barriers and liberate people who were previously too confined. That is a stark contrast to the enclosed cubicles or separate offices that characterize the traditional office set up. But true open office layouts are not the best for everyone.

For some, an open plan might actually impede productivity. A major pitfall of the open office layout is obvious – there is no privacy. It can be distracting to have to rub elbows with your neighbor every time you move. Or to have to listen to coworkers on the phone – two people can’t talk at the same time. With everyone in the same room, you could have fights over air conditioning if one person likes it hot and another cool. Eating food or taking personal phone calls at the desk is appropriate is another hot button issue.

That’s not to say camaraderie at work isn’t important, but should it be the top or singular priority? In another workplace survey, Gensler found that “the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, but individual focus work.” And that “focus work occupied the most time in the work day and was the activity people considered most critical to doing their job.” With the increase in distractions in the workplace, paired with less privacy available at work, it’s no wonder having dedicated quiet space is so important to employees.

What can we learn about office design from coworking spaces?

Coworking spaces, like WeWork, have gained momentum over the last five years. Coworking is defined as “membership-based workspaces where diverse groups of freelancers, remote workers, and other independent professionals work together in a shared, communal setting.” The concept is generally regarded as a success for many reasons, including:

  • Because you are working with people from different companies and industries, people are working on different projects there is less competition than working directly with others.
  • Engaging openly with lots of different people with different skill sets could mean that there are more opportunities to help each other out and share skill sets. So more organic networking and professional development
  • Generally, people can access coworking spaces 24/7 so people have more control over their work, and when and where they do it.

The hallmark of coworking spaces revolves around choice. While both open office layouts and coworking spaces offer ample opportunity for interaction, coworking spaces provide a variety of different workspaces for people to do the kind of work they need. Most likely you aren’t going to join a coworking space, but it could be a model for how you choose to design your own office.

How to determine which office layout and design is right for your business

What attributes are most important to your workspace?

Harvard Business Review adapted this exercise from HLW International, an architecture, design, and planning firm, that offers seven attributes of optimal workspaces. Employers should use a regular event or occurrence like a weekly meeting, conference calls, or office lunches and see what each employee values and prefers most by using the scale below. You can scale this exercise up so it applies to more people or more work situations.

7 attributes of workspaces

Adapted from

HLW also recommends asking these questions as you and your employees think about redesigning your workspace:

  • Who are our employees, and who will they be in the next five years?
  • Who else uses our space (visitors, clients, community members, etc.), and why?
  • How do we want clients, prospective hires, or other visitors to perceive us when they enter our space?
  • To what extent do we value flexibility and choice over how work gets done?
  • Are certain modes of working seen as a privilege only available to a select few?
  • What current workplace behaviors would we like to change?
  • What are the most satisfying attributes of the existing workplace that sustain productivity?
  • If people aren’t regularly coming to the office, do we understand why not?

What kind of work are you doing, and where?

Coworking spaces and open office layouts are not ideal or even possible for everyone. If you’re thinking of redesigning your office space, just remember – you don’t have to buy into fads. There is not template for you to follow. Maybe enclosed offices where everyone has their own desk still works. What you should buy into is what your employees and customers think. Do research and determine what works best for your people and their work styles, habits, and needs.

If that seems a little daunting, Gensler outlined four different work modes you can use to decide what types of work you need to accommodate so you can define distinct spaces for one or more these modes:

  • Collaborate – working with another person or group – in person, via technology, or a combination of both – to achieve a goal.
  • Focus – individual work involving concentration and attention devoted to a particular task or project.
  • Learn – acquiring knowledge of a subject or skill through education or experience.
  • Socialize – interactions that create trust, common bonds and values, collective identity,collegiality and productive relationships.

You can use these work modes to create a hybrid office, one that balances the need for focus and collaboration and everything in between. You can adopt some of the principles from modern office design concepts that work for you, like having open communal areas like a kitchen or lounge area for people to mingle, or creating a variety of conference rooms for formal and informal meetings, or having break-out office spaces so people can work away from their desks, or having private, sound-proof spaces for people to work when they need to focus. An approach like this gives employees more control of their physical workspace and more autonomy to work where and how they want.

Your office design and layout can directly affect your employees’ productivity, satisfaction and engagement. It can set the tone for relationships with clients or customers. It can improve (or hinder) talent acquisition. It can be a reflection of company culture and brand (people will be Googling you). It’s up to you to create a workspace that supports your employees and keeps pace with how they want to work.

Looking for a more subtle change?
Try a little office feng shui.

Try a little office feng shui.

If you want to change your office but it’s not financially in the cards for a large scale office makeover, there are changes you can make that could help improve your mood or productivity that don’t cost much. You can applyfeng shui principles and change your workspace to better suit your feelings or be more functional. Small adjustments can dramatically change the way you think and feel while you’re at work. The Spruce offers up these questions to help you determine what improvements you can make:

  • What do you first see when you walk in the office?
  • What is the quality of the air you breathe?
  • What is the quality of the light?
  • When you sit at your desk, what are you facing? What is behind you?
  • How clean is your desk – is it cluttered or organized?