Workspace Design Psychology: How an Office Layout Can Affect Employees

November 30, 2018

Creative ergonomics chairs in an open office
In recent years the question of workplace design has become a focal point for ma

In recent years the question of workplace design has become a focal point for many companies, but what's the real impact of workspace design psychology?

Ben Eubanks

In recent years the question of workplace design has become a focal point for many companies, but what's the real impact of workspace design psychology? Is it just about cost per square foot, or are there additional value points to consider? Interestingly, research shows that office layout may actually impact things like creativity or teamwork — if the right approach is used.

At the 2018 Human Capital Institute Strategic Workforce Analytics Conference, Dr. Ben Waber of MIT explained some of his research into how collaboration happens in the workplace. He first showed a graph with two large groups of employees with virtually no interaction or connections between them, asking the audience to guess what the dividing line might be. The answers were varied: Was it supervisors and staff? Was it those with offices or cubicles?

It turns out it was something much simpler. The two groups rarely interacted because they were on two different floors of the building. While the building was only two stories tall, each group became very set in its ways of communication and didn't include the other group in regular conversations.

In an experiment to try and increase collaboration, the researchers forced workers to relocate desks every few months and found that the connections persisted. The groups were no longer separated but interwoven with many connection points holding all of the workers together. The lesson found in Waber's research is profound: Where we sit and with whom we sit makes a major difference in how we communicate, create and collaborate as an organization.

Below are three types of layout options and the value (and drawbacks) of each. Finding the right balance is key to getting the best results.

Ergonomics and Workplace Design

For many years, offices and cubicles were the most common types of office space available. Employers often made decisions based on budget and available space, leading to a mixture of options with various benefits and drawbacks. Offices afford privacy and deep thought, but they may limit collaboration opportunities. Cubicles, on the other hand, offer ample flexibility and much lower costs per square foot, but they may erode privacy for workers.

Today, providing other types of mixed use space is now becoming a trend. For instance, open spaces, desk clusters, comfortable seating and innovative lab workspaces are some of the more common elements in contemporary office designs. It's easy to see why. Employers are looking for ways to increase collaborative opportunities and drive creative thinking among their employees. Let's break down some of the common options, along with their pros and cons.

Open Office Spaces

There is quite a bit of research echoing what Harvard has found, showing that office spaces that are fully open are not as conducive to teamwork and collaboration as once believed. However, if the goal is to use these more open spaces to create connections that didn't previously exist, then they might achieve that goal. Additionally, the open space may also work best when there are alternative options for working in a more private setting when needed, either individually or as a team. It's all about balance.

Desk Clusters

By offering desk clusters employers can achieve a high number of employees per square foot. Anyone in an expanding business knows the pain of outgrowing the current office space. However, the downside of this option is that it can negatively affect privacy and concentration. It's important to balance desk clusters and more "public" types of shared workspaces with dedicated areas that allow workers time to focus and have private conversations as needed.

Innovative Lab Workspaces

In the last few years, many co-working organizations have sprung up to allow workers to sit side by side with other employees from other companies. Innovation can occur rapidly when you begin to blend a variety of individuals that don't normally interact. Consider Waber's research on workspace design psychology in the opening above — if organizations can find ways to bring people together that don't normally interact, they can create powerful connections that continue even after those individuals are no longer physically present.

Finding the Right Balance

Employers are not just looking to throw people into a room together and hope for the best. It's important to look at how to accommodate the needs of each worker when considering office design layouts. That said, it's also important to look at the big picture. We know it's possible to increase collaboration, brainstorming and creativity through the use of ergonomics and workplace design, and businesses should take advantage of those opportunities to drive better performance.

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