Modern Office Designs: Consider Interior Environmental Quality

The workplace plays a significant role in our lives. When we spend the majority of our days in one environment, it impacts mood, cognitive behaviour and health.

A growing body of research underscores that most modern office designs do not serve the wellbeing of employees. An estimated 570,000 hours are lost every year due to poor office design.

Thanks to a better understanding of how office environments impact the health and wellbeing of the people that use them, interior office designers have repositioned their focus to make workplace designs more human-centric.

One of the key issues with the majority of today’s office designs is the inefficiency of Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ). Assessments in IEQ involves both physical and psychological responses to surroundings.

Understanding the relationship between how we feel and the environment in which we spend the majority of our time is ushering in a new wave of innovative office designs.

The most successful designs in the workplace combine private and social features, natural elements and account for the spatial preferences of different character types. Moreover, modern office designs are optimised to improve wellbeing and productivity.

Sound-Proofing Offices

The number one complaint given by office workers around the globe is the amount of distraction around the office. This was the case for people that worked in private offices as well as open-plan.

Poor acoustics in an office environment is blamed for a lack of concentration, a decrease in job satisfaction higher stress levels and lower levels of productivity.
An analysis published by office furniture manufacturer, Steelcase, claims the average worker is disrupted every three minutes. What’s more, it can take an individual twenty-three minutes to recover full concentration once they lose focus.

Office distractions can also be exacerbated by the ‘Lombard effect’ whereby people raise their voices as the surroundings get noisier. This phenomenon is especially common in busy offices such as call centres.

However, whilst the sound of voices would naturally be expected to cause distractions, a study published in the British Journal of Psychology identified ‘irrelevant noise’ is more likely to increase stress levels than the natter of co-workers.

Scandinavian researchers, Anders Kjellberg and Bertil Nordstrom discovered similar findings. It’s not just about the level of noise, but the type.

Participants in the Scandinavian study complained it was the noise they had no control over which they found more distracting. Higher episodes of annoyance and stress were recorded when workers were distracted by office equipment and unintelligible or irrelevant speech.

The design insights these types of studies provide underscores the need for interior designers to be more sophisticated when addressing how noise carries.

Sound management can be achieved by installing acoustic panels, room dividers, sound-absorbing lighting, floor-to-ceiling partitions, private offices, and dedicated quiet area.

Inviting Nature

It’s well-known that nature has restorative qualities. Man’s connection with the natural world recharges the immune system and enhances well-being in a variety of ways.

Numerous studies show employees working in office environments that receive a lot of sunlight or include natural elements in the design report better moods, higher rates of job satisfaction and more commitment to their employers.

However, the fact that most employees in concrete cities and traditional office environments are isolated from nature, the majority of workers are not receiving the nurturing benefits of Mother Earth.

Researchers at Central Michigan University surveyed workers from the United States and India. Participants were quizzed about the natural elements in their workspace.

Natural elements were categorised as windows with a view, office plants, exposure to sunlight and artwork or screensavers that depict settings in the natural world.

The objective of the survey was to identify symptoms of anxiety and depression together with stress levels and determine whether exposure to natural elements in the workplace affected the physical and psychological condition of employees.

The study concluded that when elements of the natural world are placed in an office environment they act as a buffer against the effects of stress. Not only that but “green zones” can increase concentration levels and the perceived quality of work.

It has also been shown that having a view of the outdoors can promote better performance levels in the workplace. Employees with views of natural settings demonstrate longer periods of focus.

Scientific discovery has subsequently led to an increase in biophilic office designs that mimic patterns of nature. It is expected that nature’s effect on productivity and human health will promote the large-scale biophilic project in numerous companies and throughout urban areas in general.

In a nutshell, biophilic office designs enable people to be around nature. However, this style of office interior involves more than positioning pot plants around the office.

Biophilic designs should include a variety of natural materials, textures and colour variations. Rock, sand, water and wood enhance the dynamic of a room and can be used as a centerpiece.

Natural stone such as granite and marble can add a sleek and sophisticated composition to office interiors whilst areas that provide peaceful views and encourage direct sunlight can enhance the mood and motivation of employees.

Wood is one of the most versatile materials and creates a warm, versatile office interior. Rather than making wood the predominant material for your office furniture, use it to make the room feel more expansive with ceiling beams and laminate flooring.

The Need to Breathe

Whilst physical design attributes in the work environment help to engage employees, British workers claim poor air-quality is a more pressing concern for office interiors in the UK than drab surroundings.

Unpredictable weather and polluted cities do not help. When buildings are sealed to keep the cold out, carbon dioxide levels increase and contribute towards drowsiness and headaches, When the windows are opened particulates from exhaust fumes drift into the office.

Air-conditioning units in the UK have also be found to be ineffective. HVAC systems do not include effective filters to prevent pollutants from the outside from being distributed around the office. A study concluded that more needs to be done “to identify the cause of indoor air pollution and find ways to prevent this.”

The lack of awareness around air-quality is a cause for concern. Although it is recognised that indoor air pollutants are responsible for poor health, it is not known to what extent they affect individuals because there is no government department in the UK that has ownership of the issue.

However, there is plenty of evidence in other parts of the world. A two-year study by medical journal The Lancet reveals 6.5 million people die prematurely every year as a result of poor air quality.

Polluted air has been linked with a number of debilitating diseases such as respiratory tract infections, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A 2014 study published in the United States discovered poor air quality in the workplace also hits productivity. Researchers found that for every 10 micrograms of toxic particulates in the air, the productivity of pear pickers dropped by $0.41 per hour.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes poor indoor air quality in the top five environmental health risks of modern times.

In the UK, minor illnesses such as coughs and colds are the most common reason for sick-related absence in 2016. Approximately 34 million days of productivity were lost.

YouGov survey commissioned by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) reported that almost 70% of UK office workers believed poor air quality in the office was impacting their health and productivity.

The phenomena has been attributed to sick building syndrome which is typically accredited to flaws in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.

However, a myriad of factors should also be taken into account. Room temperature, light, humidity, noise, carbon dioxide and chemical contaminants from cleaning fluids can contribute to fatigue and headaches.

Whilst a physical redesign of your office building may not be the most practical solution from a financial standpoint, building environmental controls into an office design can enhance the circulation of better-quality air.

Installing fully integrated heating and cooling systems with high-grade cleaning filters will also help. These systems connect to a network of self-calibrating sensors which provide real-time data, detect harmful levels of toxicity and refresh air-quality.

Making a Place for Space

Studies aimed at unveiling the psychological aspects of workplace design in relation to the influence on spatial perception has provided new insights for interior office designers.

The research has identified two key areas where different spatial attributes and environmental qualities have a psychological impact on employees in a crowded workplace; social and spatial density.

It is believed that spatial density has a bigger influence on our perception of personal space. Results revealed that performance levels drop when employees are working in confined, closed or shared space.

Office designs over the last sixty years have failed to address the psychological effects of how we use space in the workplace.

When cubicles were introduced into the office environment in the 1960’s they were seen as revolutionary and gave employees a private a personal space.

Cubicles were seen as an ironically liberating shift from the distraction of open floor plans that left workers feeling dissatisfied, stressed and less productive.

However, the frenzy of job cuts and subsequent mergers in the 1980’s meant offices became overcrowded, cubicles got smaller and personal space was invaded. Productivity levels dropped and stress levels went up.

A return to open-plan offices failed miserably. Consequently, workplace designs have entered a new paradigm in which “agile” and “flexible” have become the buzzwords.

Aided by portable devices and cloud storage, the concept of agile office designs is to promote mobility and cater towards preferences in working styles.

The latest designs also accommodate different personality needs by creating social environments for extroverts and private niches for introverts.

These dedicated zones also play a role in enabling employees to focus on the work they are doing. For typical everyday tasks that are considered tedious, a team environment can be motivational whilst private offices are ideal for concentrating on brain-draining reports and innovative tasks.

Supporting a fluid work-life environment within an office setting also satisfies the desire for younger generations to find ‘balance’. Millennials are more interested in the working environment than salary.

Recreational, or social areas are becoming increasingly evident. That’s not to say businesses have to install slides, ball pits or rooftop golf courses like some Fortune 500 office designs.

On the contrary, today’s workforce simply wants office space that is functional and allows them to do their job to the best of their ability. An in-house bar to crash in at the end of the day is not overlooked very often, however.

Understanding the hierarchy of different types of auditory, visual and spatial stimuli allows designers to prioritise the key features of interior office designs.

Now we know more about how IEQ affects the physical and psychological condition of today’s workforce, we can focus on building offices that address the health and wellbeing needs of people – because people perform their best when they are in good health and firing on all cylinders.