There are so many environmental factors that affect how we feel at work: noise, lighting, air quality and office layout, for starters. Some of these influences can be uncomfortably obvious, while others have more subtle effects...
Cultural factors make a big difference too, and they’re often bound up with our physical surroundings. An office that provides a thoughtfully designed break-out room or pleasant café space is likely to promote a collaborative culture (good for business) where staff feel valued as a whole person, and not just a unit of productivity (good for staff).
Take a break from noise
Providing these alternative working spaces can also help to address the problem of noise, which Sam Sahni, Head of Workplace Consultancy at office interior design and fit-out specialist Morgan Lovell, says is high on the list of workplace woes.
"One of the biggest complaints staff have is that their workplace is too noisy. On our recent projects, the focus has been on what is known as the ‘third space’, which is essentially anywhere in the office environment away from the desk. Designing break-out areas where employees feel comfortable working by themselves or in groups can result in decreased noise levels as activity is moved away from the open plan. It also fosters greater collaboration."
Still looking for answers
There’s nothing new in the idea that how we feel at work and the results we can achieve there are linked. And as both are so clearly influenced by our surroundings, it’s no wonder employers are seeking advice from office design experts.
Our understanding of the ideal working environment is evolving, as Sam explains: "From the lessons learned over the years, we have found that dynamic, activity-based working spaces to suit different working styles are vital in terms of moving away from the standard open-plan tedium".
More than work
This sounds like the death knell for the open-plan office, which simply can’t meet the multi-layered requirements we now have. For many of us, work isn’t just 'work'; it’s a place to meet people, a place to socialise, a source of identity, and even a second home for some.
Balance through control
If 'new ways of working' make you think of flexitime or remote working, you’re not wrong: these developments in our working practices also aim to give more control to the individual – something that is widely praised for enhancing wellbeing and work-life balance.
Do teams need offices?
Of course, there are critics, who believe that some of these flexible approaches can be problematic – fragmenting teams and reducing meaningful, face-to-face interactions. It's a difficult balance to strike – as shown by the well-known example of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer 'recalling' all remote employees to the office.
Mayer wrote in her memo: "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings". This idea of enabling 'chance encounters' and informal discussions is key to the fluid design of many modern workplaces.
Say goodbye to your desk...
Sam adds that the predominance of smart mobile devices also enables this movement, meaning that many of us can now work away from the traditional desk "as the bond between worker and desk gets weaker" and employers recognise that "good work is not necessarily confined to one space".
...and take control of your workspace
And so, as the desk begins to be snubbed, the worker takes centre stage. Rather than expecting employees just to 'get on with it' in whatever environment they are given, the emphasis now is on helping individuals to create their own optimal workspace. This includes everything from the ergonomics of their chair to the air they breathe.
Sam says: "Fresh air is also at the top of the list of things that all office designs should consider. Maintaining or improving air quality and thermal comfort can have a striking effect on staff health, alertness, wellbeing and productivity as it can maximise individual control, reduce heat gain, and increase natural ventilation and air purification. In addition, there are obvious cost-saving advantages".
Other approaches to achieving the twin goals of increased productivity and improved work-life balance may seem further from reach - quite literally. One 'disappearing office' in Amsterdam vanishes at 6pm sharp, when the desks are pulled up into the ceiling space by steel cables.
But perhaps the most workable approach is that described by Neil Grimmer, co-founder and CEO of Plum Organics. He says: "Whether you’re an entrepreneur starting a company or you’re working for someone else, work should be an extension of your life. If that’s not the case, if you don’t feel like work is an extension of who you are, you always will have a trade-off between work and life. We have a saying: ‘BYOS.’ It stands for ‘Bring Your Own Self.’ And it means that there should never be a separation between who our employees are outside these offices and who they are inside."