How smart office design supports the wellness and productivity of your people

Monday, January 19, 2015

If you’re in your office reading this, whether you’re aware of it or not, the space around you is affecting the way you feel and behave. Skeptical? Just ask yourself:

  • Does the lighting make it easy for me to read?
  • Am I comfortable with the air’s temperature, humidity, and purity?
  • Would my concentration be better if my colleagues were away on coffee break?
  • Does this chair and desk really suit the way I work?
  • How do I feel about the colour of the walls and floors?

It pays to pay attention to your office design

Adrian Leaman, a widely-cited researcher in building occupant needs, has observed that “productivity, health and satisfaction variables are almost always linked to comfort — the better the occupants think the indoor environment is, the more likely people are to say they are productive, healthy and happy.” 1

While the cost efficiency of office space is a primary concern for employers and facilities managers, there is a growing awareness that the effectiveness of office space design makes a real, if indirect, contribution to a company’s success.

As office work and knowledge workers make an ever-expanding contribution to company profits and the economy, progressive employers want to understand what office space works best for their people. They want an office design that supports and sustains the well-being and productivity of their staff.

Office space that’s mindful of the body

In well-designed office spaces, support for physical well-being starts with “good air quality, and natural light for as many people as possible,” said Marie-Josée Frigon, who has designed office spaces for 15 years as president of Trafic Design, a Montreal-based commercial interior design firm. To take advantage of natural light, contemporary office design locates more meeting spaces near windows, while offices gravitate towards the core of the building.

Keeping people on the move

The spaces people occupy and their work stations also have to support their everyday work, Frigon noted. Anne-Marie Charlebois, a specialist with 17 years of experience in office design and co-founder of Humani Studio, a Montreal-based design firm, said that “Finance or HR may need more closed spaces for privacy. IT needs less desk space than the graphic department, which needs to look at blueprints.”

Smart office layouts also encourage people not to stay seated all day, since studies have shown that prolonged sitting leads to harmful effects. So printers, photocopiers, and coffee machines are strategically placed to encourage people to walk. Accordingly, the office lanes people travel through are designed much wider to accommodate movement.

Furniture innovations like sit/stand work stations allow you to raise your work surface with the touch of a button, so you can choose to stand or sit at your desk. Such furniture recognizes that people are physiologically designed for movement.

Finding a new balance between individual and group spaces

One of the most frequent challenges clients present to Frigon is office noise. Employers will “hear things like, ‘Forget this, I’m going to work at home. I can’t concentrate here.’”

Office layout is one of the important factors determining the acoustic comfort of workers. Frigon observed that design trends, which have swung from cellular offices to open-plan layouts, are now favouring more modular spaces. “We ask what kind of activities will the person be carrying out during the day and then we ensure that there are spaces to carry out these tasks. We’ll create spaces for meetings of two, four, twelve, or whatever, or even a phone booth for occasional calls.”

Charlebois corroborates this modular trend in her own practice. The advantage of this design is that “the employee controls the selection of the type of space to work in, for the type of work they have to do: a space for ‘I need to think’ or a space for ‘I need to collaborate/communicate.’”

In laying out the space, the designer also analyzes the workflow between people. Colleagues who frequently work together will find each other not on separate floors but in productive proximity. “In a well-designed space,” said Frigon, “the space acts a little bit as a facilitator for the engagement of employees in their tasks.”

Pausing at an oasis for the mind

Lounges or relaxation spaces are also popular in progressive office design. “The quantity of information we deal with daily is incredible and adds to the stress,” said Charlebois. “We need spaces where we can disconnect from work and then reconnect afterwards.”

These spaces can be as small as a coffee counter with a carefully selected coffee maker where a worker can read a newspaper. Or, the space can be bigger and multi-functional, with natural light, pool tables, and a place to practice yoga at lunchtime.

3 tips for creating an office space that supports your people’s well-being

If your company is planning to renovate or move its office space, and you want that investment to make a real contribution to your people’s well-being and productivity, consider these three tips.

1) Listen to your people

Both Frigon and Charlebois believe that employers need to find out what their office people need to work more effectively. With larger companies, department surveys or questionnaires can be used. Team or department leaders can be interviewed. In smaller companies, designers may simply walk around the office talking to employees.

“Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what you hear,” said Frigon. “If people express their needs, then we can explore further to understand what will really help them.”

2) Analyze your business challenges

If your business has challenges communicating, engaging your people, supporting innovative thinking, or building a strong corporate culture, part of the problem may lie in the way your office space influences how your people feel, work, and behave. Reviewing your concerns and business strategy with a designer can be very fruitful.

3) Get professional design advice

“It’s not just a question of creating a pretty space,” said Frigon, “but making a space that’s suitable for people’s needs.”


Leaman, A. & Bordass, B. (2004): ‘Flexibility and Adaptability’ in Macmillian, S (2003) Designing Better Buildings: Quality and Value in the Built Environment. E&FN Spon Press, London. Cited in “The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance,” published by the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment and the British Council for Offices, May 2005.