Psychology of the Workplace
As societies evolve and change, so do the places we work. The majority of people spend most of their lives either at work or asleep, so it’s inevitable that the environments we work in are the subject of much debate and research. The psychology of the office workplace has been a fascinating area of research for decades and has helped to shape the spaces we inhabit. From an employer’s perspective, considering the psychological and sociological impact of the workplace on your employees can help bring out the best in them, improve your bottom line, and increase retention. From a worker's perspective, influencing the psychology of your workplace can make your working life happier.
Offices have existed, in one guise or another, for thousands of years, but it can be argued that the first truly modern office was the Old Admiralty Office in London, constructed in 1726 to handle the Royal Navy’s paperwork. Even in the 1800s the importance of office layout was noted by the UK government;
“for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it”
This is essentially the commonly-used practice of “quiet places when they need to concentrate, communal spaces when they need to be supervised”. Since then, the office has undergone many transformations – from the brutal utilitarianism of Taylorism, to the flexibility of Burolandschaft and the horrors of cubicle farms, all the way to today’s cutting edge biophilic design.
At its very core, the design of an office needs to reflect the needs of the people working within it. Learning how to enhance your employees’ experience of the workplace – thereby making them happier, healthier and more productive – will make your business a place that the most talented candidates aspire to work.
There are some companies whose offices are fabled for their modern, progressive designs. Google’s offices are famous for their playful atmosphere, with an emphasis on collaboration and perpetual proximity to food. Dr Marten’s provides employees with music themed rooms, musical equipment and well-being rooms to bring out the creative flares in their staff – while still offering small, practical comforts such as coffee machines.
Obviously multi-billion Pound offices decked out with all the mod-cons might be slightly out of reach for the average company (although never say never), there are ways of incorporating office psychology into your workplace that won’t break the bank. Remember – your office should reflect your employer brand and your company culture. If it doesn’t, you can’t expect your staff to buy into your vision. From your logo to your external communications to your office, your employer brand should be consistent, on message, and clearly defined.
It might seem like a facile point, but the colour of your offices can make a huge difference to how people feel when they’re working. Whether it’s a feature wall, accessories, lighting, or anything in between, the psychology of colour will affect your staff’s productivity.
Red, for example, increases the heartrate and can make time feel like it’s passing quicker, making it ideal for creative environments. Blue has the opposite effect to red and is better suited to more contemplative environments. If you’re in the creative industries, yellow is claimed to be ideal for inspiring creative professionals with its sunny overtones and connotations of happiness. If you’re looking to create a soothing, tranquil environment, especially if there are high-pressure decisions to be made, green would be a good choice as it is synonymous with nature and wealth.
While colours are not the be all and end all of your office design, they’re certainly worth taking into consideration. If your favourite colour is red, but you’re running a business where cool, calm decisions need to be made, it might be time to reassess.
As an individual, you can still utilise the power of colours in your own personal area (if logistically possible). You could make sure all the accessories around your desk are a calming blue or an inspiring red, or if you have walls you could hang pictures that reflect the kind of environment you’d like to be working in.
Being at the mercy of the day and night cycle is just one of the reasons to think carefully about your office lighting. People feel better when they have access to natural light, presumably why corner offices in skyscrapers are so coveted. Natural light improves sleep and increases vitality - a lack of these things can have hugely harmful affects on people’s physical and mental health. It won’t always be possible to give everyone a seat by a window, but you can install daylight bulbs which simulate the effect of natural sunlight. This can also be a good way of fending off Seasonal Affective Disorder – a real and significant condition that many people live with. During the winter months it’s possible to get up, go to work, and go home without ever seeing natural light – it’s worth taking this into consideration when you’re designing your lighting.
It’s difficult to affect the lighting if your company as a whole doesn’t buy into the concept, but there are still small changes you can make. Most modern computer monitors and mobile devices have a night-time mode that reduces the blue light (which can negatively affect your sleep patterns) and replace it with a warmer orange light. If you find yourself getting headaches from looking at a screen all day this can be a quick and easy solution.
This is a very simple step you can take to help make your office somewhere pleasant to be for your employees. Plants have proven benefits in the workplace; from reducing stress and anxiety, to increasing productivity, to reducing sickness rates due to their air purifying qualities and their positive psychological effects.
You could consider basing your plant choice on your colour scheme as well. Splashes of colourful foliage could have multiple advantages to your employees. Remember, however, that offices are not a plant’s natural environment. Make sure you get hardy plants that require little sunlight and care (succulents and cacti, for example) – a room full of dead flowers isn’t a good look.
Bringing in your own plants could also be a good way of personalising your workspace while also making the space more appealing for those around you. Who knows, you could start a trend.
As mentioned earlier, the office has undergone significant changes in preferred layout over the last hundred years or so. Gone are the endless, anonymous cubicles of the 80s where creativity and hope went to die. Similarly, even the idea of a formalised desk space is becoming less and less common. Many start-ups work from tech hubs and incubators where staff could find themselves at a different desk or room each day. Often offices adopt an open plan approach with various conference or meeting rooms to give people some privacy or quiet when needed.
There’s no hard and fast rule about what physical layout is the best – it depends entirely on what you’re trying to achieve. If you have a highly technical and autonomous workforce where individuals are siloed in their tasks, putting them in a noisy open place space could be detrimental to their productivity. In these kinds of situations, individual rooms or cubicles could be beneficial so long as people have the option to socialise if they wish. However, if your staff are highly creative and collaborative it makes sense to have everyone in the same space to inspire cross-pollination of ideas, while also giving them the opportunity for privacy should they need it.
On an individual level, environmental factors such as access to natural light, having your back to a wall (so people can’t sneak up on you), and ergonomically designed desk spaces (having the computer monitor at the correct height, wrist pads for mouse and keyboard use, enough leg room, and so on) all make a significant difference to how a workplace is perceived and the wellbeing of staff. If you find that you’re uncomfortable at your desk you can speak to your HR department to get what you need, within reason, to be as productive as possible. It’s important to also make sure you look out for signs of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury).
It may not be the first thing you consider when designing your office space, but socialising is a big part of the workplace and is often determined by the design of an office. It can be beneficial for team adhesion, staff retention and overall wellbeing to have a breakout area where people from different departments or teams can get together. Whether it’s for coffee, informal meetings, or lunch, it can make a big difference to people’s mental health to get out of their designated work zones for a bit.
In Japan it’s common, almost expected, for businesspeople to socialise after work – it is seen as an opportunity to build camaraderie and to work your way up the corporate ladder. This culture of socialising makes it less imperative to have areas in the workplace where staff can socialise during the day. However, in western offices, after-work socialising is not an expected part of the job, therefore allowing for communal spaces can remedy this.
The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa described door handles as “the handshake of the building”. Thinking about your office in such human terms can help you see the space for what it is - an extension of your company and brand, or, as an individual, what you want to achieve. If your working environment doesn’t reflect the values or goals of the company, you’ll be facing an uphill psychological battle to perform your best or get the most out of your staff. Whatever your logistical or financial constraints may be, there are always small things you can achieve to make your workplace a bit more human-friendly. A nice office can make staff happy, and happy staff make a better company, so it’s time to break out the paint swatches and get the florist on speed dial.