The science behind space and productivity in the work place is emerging. More specifically, the science behind how our surroundings effect our psychology and how that, in turn, effects our productivity at work is emerging. In this article, we use the word productivity as an umbrella term to refer to all things related to performance in the workspace e.g. innovation, inspiration, creativity, multi-disciplinary solutions etc. With that said, there is a strong correlation between well-designed space and an increase in innovation, an increase in inspiration, an increase in creativity, an increase in multi-disciplinary solutions and an increase in work performance as a whole. We will take a look at the 2 main elements of office space that have an effect on productivity; 1. the design of space to increase serendipity or simply, to increase the effects of chance encounters, especially those between contrasting disciplines and 2. the design features such as the height of the ceilings, the quantity of natural light, nature and acoustics of our working space.
What is serendipity? Serendipity is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. It would be a mistake for companies, small or big, to leave serendipity only to chance. We now know there are so many rewards to be reaped from these happy chance encounters that happen in the work place that to not design the space to encourage the occurence of them would be like leaving employee feedback forms lying around the office in the hope that the correct person finds theirs!
What is the science behind serendipity and productivity at work?
When moments of serendipity occur something happens on a neurochemical level in the human brain which in turn has positive effects on productivity at work. These special moments of chance encounters spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. Oxytocin is produced in the brain by a structure called the hypothalamus, it is then transferred to the pituitary gland which releases into the bloodstream and from here many of the following effects may follow; feelings of calmness, feelings of closness, solidifcation of relationships, the easing of stress, the improvement of social skills, the fostering of generosity and increased sense of altruism. Based on these scientific findings it is by no means suprising then that chance encounters increase productivity, performance, inspiration, creativity and problem solving in the work place.
How can design increase serendipity? Below are two simple, but not to be overlooked, ways of using design to increase small nuggets of conversation amoungst coworkers:
Strategic placing of coffee machines
When designing to encourage communication and collaboration what better than to use the tools that naturally draw people to one specific location; food and coffee! It may sound trivial but at least twice a day, every day, the majority of us head to the nearest coffee machine to get our fix; it would be silly to miss this chance to encourage organic encounters.
Telenor, the Norweigan telecommunications company, have done just this; Telenor invested several hundred thousand dollars to remove old coffee machines and replace them with new, fewer and bigger ones. Previously, Telenor had 1 coffee machine for roughly 6 employees and since we are creatures of habit, the same people used the same coffee machine every day (yes, Telenor invested time and money in to studying the coffee habits of their employees all in order to increase serendipity!). After the coffee machine makeover, Telenor now has just one coffee machine for 120 employees. In the quarter after this change was made sales rose by 20%, or $200 million. The cause of such a vast increase? Staff running in to colleagues from other departments at the coffee machines and talking.
The design and location of staircases
The central staircase at Gensler´s Washington DC office is designed so as to make two floors function almost as one. The designers of the Gensler office realised that they had mastered the horizontal dimensions of the building to increase communication and community and to break down department barriers namely by creating open layout spaces, however they still had yet to overcome the vertical challenge; the challenge of connecting different floors within a building. The problema as put by Thomas Allen, a management professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Business who conducted studies of workspace effectiveness, people on different floors “might as well be on a different continent.” The solution to this problem? Stairways; but not stairways as we know them. The central staircase in the Gensler office required the builders to literally cut a square slab between the first and second floor. The staircase is completely open, it is the first thing you can see when you enter on the ground floor and it is also the quickest way between floor one and two and therefore making it the best option for people to take!
Similarly, at the WeWork, a leading cowork, headquarters in Soho, New York, creative director Devin Vermeulen strategically designed a staircase for the sole reason of increasing chance encounters! As in the Gensler office, Vermeulen wanted all the floors in the WeWork HQ to function as one large floor and thus the birth of the ´lily pads´ staircase. Vermeulen designed the staircase so as to have 3 big platforms which have their own ´meeting rooms´ (hence being like lily pads!) that are connected by 3 smaller staircases. Each ´lily pad´ has its own seating area and its own selection of plants and therefore making a garden-like feel to it. These little not-so-randomly-placed landing pads increase the chances of encounters between people of different floors, different departments and different positions all of which in turn increases productivity in the workspace.
There is a reason why Steve Jobs famously designed the Pixar headquarters with bathrooms located right in the middle of the building so people from around the company would bump into each other and have chance (or not so chance!) moments of conversation. Jobs believed so firmly in the value of these moments of serendipity that he initially only put one set of bathrooms in the central atrium and none in the other wings of the building; CTO of Pixar, Edwin Cutmall, luckily managed to persuade Jobs to allow a second bathroom to be installed upstairs!
2. Design Features
Many psychological studies have proved that people are more creative when their ceilings are higher; they feel more innovative when the ceilings stand at 10 feet or more, are most productive when there is a range of ceiling heights around the space (because each area feels like a different ´neighbourhood´ and thus a change of scene which in turns regenerates productivity when running low) and we´re more likely to have a conversation with a friend when we are in a space with ceilings more than 9 feet. If the height of a ceiling can have a positive effect, it can, naturally, have a negative effect too; when the ceilings are too high we lack a sense of intimacy and coziness and when the ceilings are below 9 feet people feel stiffled. (Sally Augustin Ph.D, People, Place and Things). We can literally manipulate the space in which we work to increase productivity. Cool eh?
It is nothing new that natural light affects the productivity of people but what exactly is the science behind it? Natural sunlight enters our body two ways; through our optic nerve in our eyes and through our skin. Once inside the body, our levels of the powerful neurotransmitter, serotonin, increases. Neuroscientists haven't come to any formal conclusions as to why but they know that serotonin serves as a mood regulator and helps us to feel alert and awake. Not only serotonin but ultraviolet light also stimulates epidermal cells known as keratinocytes to make beta-endorphins, which have a mood-boosting effect. With this in mind, designing a workspace to allow as much natural light as possible to pass through is crucial to productivity levels.
The bond between human beings and other living systems is called the biophilia hypothesis. Harvard University entomologist E.O. Wilson first put forward the case of the human need for connection with the natural world. The study of 7,600 workers in 16 countries found that those who worked in spaces with green or other natural features reported a 15% higher level of wellbeing and are 6% more productive and 15% more creative overall. Why? Unlike the other design features, the reason behind this is less to do with the neuro-effect but more the effect nature has on its environment i.e. it reduces levels of pollutant gases such as formaldehyde, benzene and nitrogen dioxide and it also reduces levels of airborne dust, air temperatures and background noise, all contributing to creating a workspace more compatible with productivity.
Designers and architects have known for a long time that the acoustics of a space, especially a workspace, are important. But what exactly is the science behind acoustics and productivity? The brain relies on the communication of neurons that travel through electronic waves, of which there are 4; Alpha, Beta, Delta and Theta. As neurons travel through these waves they can be affected by external stimuli i.e. sound. Since sound itself is a wave, the 4 electronic waves in our brain (EEG waves) can sync or easily be affected by sound waves. It makes sense then that the sounds surrounding you at work have an affect on your brain which in turn has different affects on mood, focus and productivity. We now know sweet spot is around 70 decimals – that’s enough noise to provide creative energy, but not so quiet that people feel trapped.
To finish up; there is a lot of science to defend the correlation between space and productivity. If it is possible that we can manipulate the spaces in which we work to increase productivity then productivity is no longer merely a character trait or personality type. If, rather, we can design our workspaces to increase productivity then we are no longer such slaves to our minds. Feeling tired at work? Move to a lighter area. Lacking innovation on a Friday? Move to a space with ceilings over 10 feet? You´re the CEO and you think you´re missing out on interdisciplinary solutions? Change the size and locations of your coffee machines. Simple?