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How To Design An Office For Maximizing Employee Happiness

From color and textile to closed doors, here are the strategies for encouraging flexibility and productivity.

How To Design An Office For Maximizing Employee Happiness
[Photo: ©Jasper Sanidad for Elkus Manfredi Architects via Flickr user Phil Manker]

You might think the proliferation of wearables and apps to analyze and optimize our every move, along with the $6 billion spent on workplace wellness initiatives, would mean that every worker is engaged and happy on the job.

But the reality is quite different.

Last year, less than a third of workers reported being engaged in their jobs. The majority (51%) said they weren’t engaged, and nearly a quarter (17.5%) said they were "actively disengaged," according to Gallup’s 2014 State of the Global Workplace report.

What else can be done to get employees whistling while they work?

Fast Company got an advance look at a research paper that taps some alternate strategies to make workers happier, by design company Teknion in collaboration with design experts who include Joan Blumenfeld, principal of Perkins+Will, one of this year’s Most Innovative Companies.

Related: 7 Habits Of People Who Are Happy At Work

The authors of Ethonomics: Designing For The Principles Of The Modern Workplace believe the workplace is ripe for reinvention. They say we can get there by using a different approach to design, "to explore new ways to create healthy, inspiring, and sustainable places in which people can feel good about where they are and what they do."

"Workspaces should flex to provide a variety of spaces and destinations for workers to inhabit that promote movement throughout the day," said Blumenfeld in a statement. "While many companies are doing a good job of incorporating some of these elements into their workplace design, there’s a need for more awareness and implementation of this way of thinking holistically about the workplace. Ethonomics illustrates that it’s the incorporation of a number of these key elements and initiatives at all scales that will provide an architecture for workplace happiness."

More attention needs to be placed on remedies for the preponderance of technology and the unintentional loss of productivity brought on by vast open offices or warrens of cubicles washed in a coat of gray or beige paint and illuminated by fluorescent bulbs.

The authors contend that movement needs to be built into the workday, while the office should be redesigned to provide more than a hermetically sealed environment that is at once too noisy but less than visually stimulating. Here’s how they break it down:

Flexibility To Move

The paper’s authors write that until very recently, all of human survival and comfort relied on a person’s ability to move. Enter technology, and all that hunting, gathering, sowing, and reaping is relegated to the frenetic motion of our fingers alone. Food and clothing: ordered online or via mobile app and delivered to our doors or picked up from our vehicles. A person could go nearly an entire day between work and home and rarely have to rise from a seated position.

Ironically, Flurry Analytics found that between December 2013 and January 2014, health and fitness apps grew 62% in usage, compared to apps overall that grew only 33%. We care about wellness, but most of our jobs keep us tethered to our chairs—the place we’ve discovered might as well be shaped like a coffin.

To optimize a workspace for a body biologically engineered to be in motion, it should provide opportunities for physical activity and a choice among working postures as well as workspaces, the authors contend.

"Alert, engaged, and healthy workers are most often those who are afforded a stimulating and inspiring work environment that encourages movement—to sit, stand and walk around," they write. "We are more alert after taking a walk with a coworker or friend—and perhaps having an insightful conversation. And that feeling of well-being is likely to affect the way we interact with others—less negative feelings and fewer expressions of anger, irritation, or resentment."

You don’t have to exercise to release those feel-good endorphins, according to James Levine, an endocrinologist and researcher at the Mayo Clinic. Levine found that an hour of strenuous activity doesn’t counteract eight hours of sitting.

For those now addicted to the big data of their daily movements, a study by biomechanist Jack P. Callaghan, PhD, in partnership with Teknion, found that initially, workers should alternate sitting and standing at a ratio of 3:1 with the long-term goal of standing more than you sit. In an eight-hour workday, that means only two hours in the chair.

Employers should pay attention to the spaces designated for movement and optimize for the following:

  • Standing up to stretch throughout the day
  • Pacing while talking on the phone or organizing papers
  • Walking rather than sitting around a table for meetings
  • Strolling between offices or at lunch
  • Climbing the stairs to the office

Feeling Like The Great Outdoors

"As human beings, we are highly responsive to multi-sensorial experiences of nature—which are, in fact, profoundly important to human functioning, health, and well-being," the authors say, citing research from the University of Washington that indicates visual access and "being within green space" helps the mind to focus and can help alleviate mental stress.

In the workplace, it can be as simple as access to daylight and a pleasant view. Barring the availability of an inspiring view, the authors suggest that spaces containing natural elements "offer cognitive respite, stimulate creativity and improve work performance." Natural light is best for the health of the eye and potted plants reduce stress while boosting the air quality.

The authors say that biophilic design, which connects the built environment with nature, can be achieved with elements like floor-to-ceiling windows or even windows that open along with decorative motifs inspired by nature.

Mixed Space

Wide-open office spaces were a great idea, until they were proven to be distracting and unproductive. The authors say that creativity and even collaboration require the ability to retreat as well as connect.

What works to keep employees happy and engaged are a mix of spaces that support the workers throughout their day:

  • Open and enclosed spaces
  • Multilevel offices
  • Lounges and soft seating areas
  • Conference rooms and break rooms

Color And Texture

Quiet and solitude aren’t just for introverts. According to Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, 69% of workers are dissatisfied with noise levels at their primary workspace and 77% prefer quiet when they need to focus.

Unfortunately, the focus on sustainability might have added to the problem. "Green design, with its emphasis on hard surfaces and environmentally friendly insulation, is compounding the [distraction] problem," says David Sykes, executive director of the Acoustic Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One study indicated that workers toiling in cubicles were subjected to 29% more interruptions than their coworkers in offices with doors. The frequent distraction has been shown to cause higher rates of exhaustion and errors.

The report suggests that the modern workplace needs to "layer in spaces" all equipped with technology to encourage different work styles. "To enhance flexibility, some spaces can be designated as 'quiet zones' or 'tech-free zones,' while others can be set aside for small group conversations," they write.

Color And Texture

Materials and paint play an equally important role in designing an office for maximum worker satisfaction. The study authors write: "Our sense of sight enriches our experience, as we perceive the light and luster that activate and enliven space. Our sense of touch elicits response through the tactility of soft, plush textiles or that of strongly textured wood and stone. Such contrasts or dualities create beautiful and meaningful spaces that conspire to keep people engaged and refreshed."

Related: Why You Should Never Paint Office Walls White

Humans have historically drawn from nature to decorate their personal spaces, and the fact that we still respond to sunlight and shadow, water, and earth suggest that even technology can’t erase this basic need to surround ourselves with things that are pleasing to our senses.

Materials in the workplace can help balance the need for quiet versus communal space, as well as stimulate creativity. The authors suggest using:

  • Earthy, metallic mineral tones and colors found in nature
  • Warm and cool tones together
  • Strong or extreme textures that mimic nature
  • Patterns found in nature
  • Natural fibers such as wool and linen
  • Natural materials such as wood, metal, stone

To enhance the division of quiet and communal spaces, they recommend using:

  • Thicker textiles (like felt) used for upholstery, wall panels, and partitions
  • Drapery or wrapped wall panels with acoustic backing to fabric
  • Demountable wall systems with textile fascias
  • Ceiling panels or "clouds"

As for color, it can be a productivity boon or buster as well as evoke energy or calm. Beyond using a brand’s colors to identify the workspace, the authors list these tones for maximizing the company’s message:

  • Earth tones = warmth, comfort
  • Spice tones = warm, bold
  • Warm neutrals = subtle, sophisticated
  • Cool neutrals = technical, modern
  • Yellows = bright, cheerful, optimistic
  • Metallic tones = rich, elegant
  • Reds and oranges = active, lively, energetic
  • Greens = fresh, natural, balanced
  • Blues and purples = tranquil, calm
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