A study published in the Journal of Public Affairs, Administration and Management and conducted in Pakistan found that office design played a “vital” role in increasing employee productivity.
Architects and office designers agree, saying the design and ergonomics of an office space – from the furniture, noise, temperature and lighting to how desks or cubicles are arranged – are significant factors that either boost or sink employee productivity, but they’re often overlooked by employers.
Taariq Nordien, a Partner at UF Architects, says lighting is the most important aspect of office design, but the high price tag attached to installing it properly deters many companies.
“When you’re planning an office, you should consult a lighting expert. Ideally, you’d want a space where each employee gets natural light and then supplement that with artificial light, but this isn’t always possible. So the more natural light, the better,” he says.
Migraine expert Dr Elliot Shevel says working in dim light puts strain on the eyes and can cause headaches, discomfort and loss of concentration, which impact negatively on productivity. (Interestingly, the Pakistani study found that while women’s concentration was more affected than men’s in dim light, their productivity wasn’t as severely hampered.)
According to another study conducted by the American Society of Interior Designers, the physical design of a workplace is one of the top three factors that impact on job satisfaction and performance.
The study respondents were seeking other jobs, saying they’d prefer to work for an organisation with a good physical environment, while just 31% were satisfied with their working environment. The remainder were prepared to put up with their environment in order to retain their positions.
But what is a good workplace environment?
Nordien says it’s a space that takes the employees and all their needs into account. He adds employers should also be mindful of bad artificial ventilation that doesn’t clean the air, or air conditioners that are too hot or too cold. If cubicles are installed, the pod dividers should be low enough for employees to see each other.
"The noise factor in a shared office space is another important consideration: employees should be able to conduct telephone conversations and focus on their work in relative quiet, allow for conversation, the sharing of ideas and the freedom for employees to collaborate,” says Nordien.
Design forward spaces
Internationally, companies like Google, Skype and Facebook are famous for their funky, innovative offices. Locally, there are also some offices considered to be among the coolest in the world.
Tammy Merz, a Production Manager at presentation firm Missing Link in Johannesburg, says the company’s “rad” interior helps her cope with the stressful nature of her job.
The office has a whiteboard surface table-tennis table, a tree-house complete with a swing, a nest, a tattoo parlour, a recording studio which is a bigger version of a British telephone booth and a shooting range – to “kill” clichéd presentations.
To get down from the second floor – which houses a kitchen and rock stage-like common area – you have the option of using a children’s slide or slithering down a fireman’s pole.
“If I need time out, I can go to different spaces to think. It helps me zone out and fuels my creativity. I wake up every morning loving my job,” says Merz.
But creating an employee-friendly, motivational workspace is informed by an approach which values individuals and acknowledges the reality of their working requirements.
While Missing Link Video Editor Tebogo Lechela declares it’s “undoubtedly the best place” he’s worked in, he says there’s more to it than the playful trimmings.
“The fun stuff is cool, but it’s also the people who make it worthwhile. Our senior management regards us as peers and equals, and gives us the platform to speak our minds,” he says.
It cost R1 million and took around four months to put the Missing Link offices together, but if all the funky, quirky features were stripped away, the company’s founder and co- owner Richard Mulholland and MD and co-owner Sam Dean say it would still be a positive place.
“This office is a physical manifestation of our culture. The core is: get your culture right and the vibe will help keep that culture alive,” Mulholland says.
Dean says it’s the pride they take in their work and office space that “translates” into productivity. They also receive greater buy-in from their staff by allowing them to “own their own piece of the organisation”.
Each employee was given a budget to decorate and arrange their cubicle as they wish, so they’re constantly surrounded by the things that inspire them and make them personally happy.
Employees for advertising agency Ogilvy’s Cape Town office, where the same principle was employed, have proudly posted and forwarded photographs of their workspace to friends and bloggers.
The office is structured around a red lift shaft encased in a white zig-zag staircase. There are funky play areas and informal chill-out or brainstorming areas. The boardroom and conference centre changes colour from a translucent white to pink and the men have the pleasure of relieving themselves in a hot red-lipsticked, open-mouthed urinal.
Apart from optimum lighting, space and noise levels, there are other factors likely to impact negatively on productivity – such as messy desks, which many employees say they find demoralising.
Staffing firm Adecco found that 57% of respondents admitted to judging colleagues by how clean or dirty their personal workspace was, while just under half said a mess negatively impacts their perception of their colleagues. One-third of respondents said they believed a messy desk indicated laziness.