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Two types of topics grab my attention. First, there are the instances when companies think they are saving money by cutting costs, but do so in ways that actually increase turnover and decrease engagement and productivity (thus, pursuing false economies that backfire). Second, there are the pathways to improve human performance that receive too little attention from management and human resources professionals. Workplace design—the physical space where people work—fits both criteria.

Today, companies relentlessly try to lower their occupancy/real estate costs, which are often the second- or third-largest operating expense. They do so mostly by using open office plans that decrease the amount of space allocated to each employee. Architecture and design firm Gensler’s 2013 workplace survey reported that between 2010 and 2012, the average square feet per person dropped from 225 to 176, a decrease of more than 20% in just two years.  

However, studies going back decades show that open office designs negatively impact employee satisfaction levels and perceived productivity. After all, it’s tough to focus on the task at hand—not to mention, quite stressful—when you’re constantly being disrupted. In the Gensler survey, more than half of employees reported being disturbed by others, and more than 40% resorted to makeshift solutions to try and block out distractions. (Unsurprisingly, substantial research also documents a connection between noise and stress.) Perhaps you’d assume that, at least, there’d be better dialogue between colleagues as a result. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A recent Swedish study found that communication among employees was actually worse in open-plan arrangements.  

Instead of obsessing over square footage, organizations should optimize spending on those things that affect employee well-being and productivity—and, consequently, their bottom line. 

The Incredible Impact of Workplace Design

So what elements of a workspace will make the biggest difference? Turns out, employees want basic amenities over flashy perks. In a 2019 survey of more than 1,500 employees, air quality and light were the biggest influencers of employee performance, happiness, and well-being. (The ability to personalize one’s space was also high on the list.) Those that were satisfied with their environments were found not only to be 16% more productive, but also 18% more likely to remain at their job and 30% more attracted to their company over competitors. 

Moreover, a report from the National Research Council of Canada highlighted the many ways that workplace design can influence mental health. Among them: how light affects circadian regulation; light and color affect mood; design impacts social interactions; and of course, design influences privacy and people’s ability to control the stimuli to which they are exposed.

Knowing that the health and happiness of employees are top of mind for HR teams, workplace design should be much more of a priority. 

HR Next Steps

There are several things human resource professionals can and should do to ensure that their workplaces are helping—not hindering—their company’s objectives.

First, educate the management team about the effects of workplace design on physical and mental health, turnover and job performance. Many senior managers, maybe even many HR professionals, remain too uninformed about the extensive research linking aspects of physical workplace design to numerous business and employee well-being outcomes.

Second, to the extent possible, provide employees with choice and flexibility around where they work and what those environments are like. A 2019 International Workplace Group report found that flexible work was on the rise, with 50% of employees globally working outside of their main office headquarters for at least 2.5 days per week. In fact, some countries now mandate flexibility. For instance, in the Netherlands, employees who have been with an employer (with at least 10 employees) for one year are entitled to ask for the ability to work from another location. It’s in a company’s best interest to move in this direction, offering alternative arrangements that best suit individuals’ needs.

If remote work isn’t an option, aim to give workers more control over their surroundings. A recent Harvard study revealed that “employees, by a margin of 42% to 28%, would rather be able to personalize their work environment than opt for unlimited vacation.” The things they’d most like to be able to adjust? Temperature, overhead and desk lighting and noise levels. 

Third, and most fundamentally, HR should incorporate aspects of physical workplace design into their organizational effectiveness toolkits. That means: 1) doing evaluations of people’s reactions to a physical space, including post-occupancy studies so companies can learn from their experience; 2) using architects and design firms that are aware of and sensitive to the aspects of physical design that affect employee outcomes; and 3) ensuring that companies do not suboptimize in their decisions about workplaces—saving on real estate costs while harming employee engagement, satisfaction and job performance.

The major points I’m making here aren’t new; in fact, studies of the effects of the physical environment on behavior represent some of the earliest research in industrial and organizational psychology. But they continue to be overlooked. Workplace well-being and individual performance and productivity depend on the design of the spaces where work gets done. HR practitioners must get more involved in physical design discussions and decisions to ensure better results.