How office layout impacts productivity

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We’ve all worked in that office where the boss is constantly rearranging the furniture to ‘increase productivity’. Some days you’d come into work to find your desk replaced with a coat stand, and your chair replaced with a beach ball. But bosses like this might actually be onto something, because office layout does hugely impact productivity, and a lot of us are working in offices that get the layout very wrong.

Open Plan Offices

Are open-plan offices doing more harm than good?

Traditional cubicle-filled offices are a thing of the past. Recent estimates say 70% of offices in the USA have open floor plans. There is one benefit to an open plan layout: more workers can be packed in per square inch. Other than that, there are very few benefits. The theory behind open plan offices was that they would increase collaboration, creativity and productivity, but in reality they do more to decrease all these things.

Studies have shown that the lack of privacy in an open plan office can actually discourage collaboration and slow the flow of ideas. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that conversations between employees in an open-plan office are shorter and more superficial than they would be in a traditional office.

Open plans also impact individual performance negatively. According to The New Yorker, the psychological effects of an open plan office are simple; physical barriers create a sense of privacy, and a sense of privacy has been linked to improved performance.

On top of all this, open plan offices make workers sick. Statistically. Dutch research shows that the more people there are working in a single room, the more likely they are to take sick days.

Clearly, there has to be a better way to lay out an office – one that will increase productivity and alleviate all of these issues. There is, however, one more benefit of an open plan office, as mentioned in The New Yorker: employees working in open plan spaces are more likely to feel like they work for an innovative, laid back company, even if they do not.

Let there be light

We have discussed office lighting before on this blog, and rightly so, because lighting in an office is one of the most influential factors affecting productivity levels. Positioning desks near windows will help employees get the natural light they need to maintain maximum concentration.

Another lighting tip to bear in mind: don’t use too much flourescent lighting. A brighter office is a more productive one, but excessive artificial light is known to cause headaches and eye strain.

Office space

Bring the noise

Or don’t, actually. After lighting, noise is the biggest distraction in the workplace. Background noise impairs workers’ cognitive ability, making it more difficult for them to think creatively or solve puzzles.

Your employees don’t have to work in soundproof booths that block out noise. Instead, give them a quiet place where they can go to work if it all gets too loud. Integrating quiet spaces into your office layout gives workers somewhere to go when they just need to sit down and concentrate.

Stay comfortable

If your employees sit down for long periods of time, you have to make sure their chairs are comfy. The same study that declared noise the second biggest distraction in the workplace linked comfier furniture to increased productivity.

Make room for flexibility

No one is suggesting a move back to strictly cubicled offices, but clearly there are issues with the current trend towards open plan environments. One way to reach a middle ground is to allow for workers to move around the office as they work. Creating areas with a sense of privacy, as well as group areas should be the perfect layout compromise.

This flexibility will affect more than just privacy. Collaboration can be increased, too, perhaps surprisingly. On the way to and from the more private areas, if the office is laid out effectively, employees are more prone to have chance meetings, thus sparking discussion and new ideas. Now that employees have places they can go to talk privately, they can discuss and develop these ideas further.

Tailor your layout for your business

However you lay out your office, make sure it is right for your business. If you don’t actually want to promote collaboration and creativity, perhaps you would be better off with a traditional cubed office. But what kind of company are you running?

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