Rethinking How Smarter Office Design Can Boost Productivity

Business managers are rethinking how office design affects worker productivity in light of recent University of Sydney research questioning conventional wisdom on open-plan layouts, currently found in nine out of ten Australian offices. The study, published in the December 2013 issue of The Journal of Environmental Psychology, collected over 40,000 responses from 303 offices in Australia, the U.S., Canada, and Finland.

Results showed consistently higher worker dissatisfaction with open-plan layouts regarding issues such as noise and privacy. About half the workers in open-plan cubicles or layouts with limited or no partitions expressed dissatisfaction with sound privacy. Two to four out of ten open-plan workers were highly dissatisfied with visual privacy as well. Study leader Jungsoo Kim concluded that the noise disruption caused by open-plan layouts outweighed their benefits.


As this study illustrates, office design directly affects productivity. Smart bosses are thinking about new ways to boost productivity by rethinking design.

Respect Individuality

Remi Ayoko, who is leading University of Queensland research into better use of open-office plans, says one problem with open layouts is that they create stress over territoriality. People who find the open environment stressful can become territorial, creating conflict when others around them interpret their defensiveness as selfishness. To remedy this, she emphasises the importance of letting employees add a touch of individuality to their work space, such as a family photo, a plant, or another mark of psychological ownership. Unique ergonomic furniture, decorations and energetic colours can also serve to promote individual expression and boost employee morale.

Form Follows Function

Global business strategy firm DEGW has conducted research involving 7,312 participants from 18 organisations around the world in an effort to understand how improving office design can save time, boost worker concentration, and increase productivity. Their research links open-plan noise problems to work interruptions. Findings show workers can lose as much as 19 minutes a day to distractions such as talkative coworkers and ringing phones. DEGW attributes this to the semi-private natures of cubicles, which are neither private enough to prevent distractions nor public enough to foster collaboration.

To solve this, DEGW recommends letting workers control their own workspace and choose a design that fits the nature of their task. Workers with tasks requiring concentration, such as computer programming, should be able to select private areas, while those on collaborative projects such as meetings may find more open layouts better suited to their tasks. By the same token, areas for tasks requiring specialised equipment such as whiteboards should be outfitted with essentials.

Adapting Environments to Activities

Australian Human Resources Institute Chairman Peter Wilson says the latest trend in office redesign is structuring layouts around activities. According to Wilson, the contemporary activity-oriented office combines a blend of specialised zones where workers can engage in different functions, including both solitary and collaborative work as well as other activities such as eating and socialising. He stresses that implementing this guideline does not mean giving everyone their own office, but it does require rethinking the open-floor assumption that efficiency equals cramming as many employees into one space as possible.