Business First | The Psychology of the Office Space

The psychology of the office space

04 Apr 2016 –– News
How does the layout of an office affect morale and productivity?

Over the last few months, on the Business First blog, we’ve taken a look at various factors that affect productivity in the office. From furniture to lighting, from colours of paint to office location.

But amongst all this, one thing we’ve not yet taken a close look at, is the psychology of the office space itself. How does the layout of the office effect the morale, job satisfaction and productivity of the employees working in it?

The evolution of the office

During the 1920s, Frederick Taylor, one of the earliest examples of a ‘management guru’, had a goal of maximising the efficiency and productivity of employees in the workplace. He was one of the first to espouse, and be widely acknowledged for his theories on, the benefits of open plan office spaces, with all desks facing towards a supervisor.

He believed this type of office arrangement engendered a greater work-rate through the constant ability of managers to supervise each one of the staff they were responsible for.

The main thing that held the ‘open office’ back during the next two decades was the lack of high quality lighting. It was often the case, in larger offices, that work stations had to be arranged around the edges of rooms, as the lack of good lighting made it necessary to supplement office lights with natural light.

This type of office arrangement remained prevalent until around the 1950s, when the ‘universal office’ was introduced.

The universal office

The universal office wasn’t dissimilar to the open office in that it utilised most of the available space. The main differences were that due to advancements in lighting – the creation of fluorescent lighting – and ventilation – air-conditioning – companies were no longer limited in their floorplans to the middle of rooms.

The 1950s universal offices tended to be made up of managers in separate offices with floor to ceiling glass windows on the internal sides, and the average employees organised into open air ‘bullpens’.

The Cubicle

By the mid-1960s, American company, Herman Miller, had created what would later become widely known as ‘the cubicle’.

When Herman Miller first created the cubicle, it was billed as the Action Office System, and consisted of a myriad three walled cubicles featuring desks and work stations of varying heights; thus allowing staff free movement and a greater sense of privacy and responsibility.

To begin with, the cubicle was seen as a liberating move, allowing employees working in them to be freed from the distractions of open floor plans, and as a result, be more productive.

The popularity of the cubicle reached such heights, that, in the 1970s an oil company found that an attempt to transition from traditional offices and cubicles to an open plan office space left workers feeling dissatisfied, stressed and less productive.

However, by the 1980s, when recession hit layoffs and mergers took place, and managers began to use the cubicle to stuff as many staff into a small space as possible.

By the time the cubicle had widely died out in the mid-1990s, they had become synonymous with oppressive corporate regimes. They had started to result in employees becoming once again becoming less productive and even having more time off through sickness. In some cases, staff even left jobs at companies still using cubicles.

Revival of the open plan office

Towards the end of the 1990s, the open plan office space re-emerged.

Advances in technology and changes in the psychology of the office space allowed companies to revert to open offices. The idea was that this enabled staff to be more mobile around the office and it would create a stronger bond between team members and result in rises in productivity and improve team working ethic, as well.

The psychology of the office space

In 2005 a study looking at a range of organisations found that allowing employees an element of control over their working environments engendered increased satisfaction and productivity.

Professor David Craig, surveyed 38,000 people across different organisations and found that open offices fostered an environment where interruptions from colleagues, that were detrimental to productivity, were common. In addition to this, the more senior the member of staff, the larger the loss of productivity was.

In 2011, Matthew Davis, a psychologist, reviewed more than 100 previous studies of office environments and found that although open offices had a symbolic image of engendering ‘togetherness’ and a cohesive team spirit, the reality, however, was that these office spaces tended to harm creativity and productivity.

Furthermore, a recent study, carried out in Denmark, looked at the relationship between staff health and office layouts/sizes, found out that across 2400 employees, as the number of people per office increased, the number of sick days taken increased by up to 62% in some cases; when compared to a single person office baseline.

The Googleplex

By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, due to yet more changes in opinion on the ramifications of open plan office spaces, offices had again moved away from the open plan model.

Employees had begun to feel that working in large, open plan offices was detrimental to their attention spans, creativity, productivity and overall job satisfaction.

The result was the start of the move towards the current trend for ‘flexible, collaborative spaces’. These types of office layout are meant to encourage creativity, productivity and satisfaction, while enabling staff to choose how and where in the office they work. The move towards this type of space has been lead by Tech companies such as, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, who have spent millions on research in to the most effective way for them to house their staff to reach the greatest levels of productivity.

Google, for example, are spending circa £750,000,000 on its 1,000,000 square foot London offices, where there will be climbing walls, indoor football pitches, roof gardens and open-air swimming pools, amongst other things. They will also provide staff with the ability to choose how and when they work, adjustable furniture so they can make their workspaces bespoke to them, and a range of collaborative, open plan, meeting rooms and more focussed, private workspaces.

Granted, the vast majority of companies can’t spend nearly £1,000,000,000 on its offices. But what companies should do, is look at the effects that the type of office layout it is planning will likely have on its staff, allow staff an amount of control over their workspaces, and even get opinion from staff as to how they think they would work best.

The psychology of the office space is an ever changing landscape, but USC Dornsife created this, we think, pretty cool, infographic of the story so far.