How to Have a Healthy Office (Part 2 of 3): Layout and Furniture

Last Updated on by Pedram Sadough Moghanlu

In the first part of this series, we discussed the preconditions of an office, its environmental conditions.

The second part we will present how the layout and furniture can impact staff’s physical and psychological well-being.

 

Layout and plan

While recent trends, largely thanks to emergence of gig economy, has shifted toward working from home and “coffices”, still many companies own and maintain office workplace. 

The layout, setting and arrangement of workstations and furniture shown to have a great deal of psychological and cognitive effect on staff.

In general, type of the job decides the layout of an office. 

The jobs with high concentration and mental demand, require calmer and secluded rooms (computer programming) with minimum interaction with other staff, while customer service operations and office collaboration need more open spaces.

Another important factor in office design is privacy; being able to withdraw and filter out unwanted contact.

Here is an example of combining a semi-private cubicle with larger open space area.

Studies since the early 1980s have attempted to inspect the role of office layout on productivity and satisfaction of the clerks. 

In one study, it was revealed that people rate private work-space that keep them from being constantly distracted, as the most important factor in office design. 

Those employees who used to work in individual room, reported lesser productivity and collaboration.

However, this comes at a cost. 

Working in private spaces hinders effective communication among colleagues, which is a necessary aspect job-life in many corporations1

Therefore, seeking to find a balance between productivity, privacy and satisfaction in indoor work-spaces is an ongoing quest.

There are different kind of office layouts that we encounter nowadays.

1. Individual work-spaces that are basically a room with 4 walls enclosing it. Alternatively, it can be a large room that is divided into smaller units and each unit is dedicated to an employee;

2. Shared work-spaces (used by two to six people) that are similar to individual work-spaces but bigger and shared by the employees doing similar tasks; 

3. Open offices, normally a hall is shared by many people, there are no or short dividing partitions and mostly used for the tasks that are highly collaborative and communicative (like in TV and news networks).

As recent as 1990s, newer concepts such as combi-office and flex-offices also have been introduced. 

In short, in combi-offices and flex-offices, the individual can choose where to do their task based on the task they are involved in. 

In the open and semi-open spaces combi and flex-offices provide, employees can either share their ideas and collaborate, and in the enclosed “units” they can concentrate on their job with less distractions. 

Heating and A/C are centrally managed in these office types, but lighting is adjustable individually.

The only difference between combi-offices and flex-offices is that in latter, there are no assigned work-spaces for every employee and in-line with “activity-based working” concept, every employee has to clear the desk and pick up their stuff after the working day is over.

 

Left: Individual work-spaces/ Right: Combi-office

In a research by Rieck and Kelter (2005) showed that combi-offices get the best rating among employees in terms of productivity and comfort2

Similarly, in a study by Blok et al. (2009), they witness an increase in productivity and satisfaction when they moved a group of 6 people from a shared work-space to a combi-office3

So, what makes combi-offices so effective and attractive to the staff?

The answer lies within this fact that although people value concentration and privacy dearly, but smooth communication and face-to-face talks with peers are also important. 

Combi-offices provide the best of the both worlds and unlike flex-offices, they respect private property!

 

Majorelle- AXA Tower Defense, a flex-office

Some general tips:

  • As evident from the analysis above, combi-offices can provide a good balance between the most important human need in the offices; concentration, privacy, communication (necessarily in this rank).

  • In changing an office’s layout, the cost-benefit analysis and the main mission of an organization or a department must be considered.

  • With a rule of thumb, implementing a flex-office is cheaper than other layouts, because many items and furniture are commonly used and there are no “my desk”. That’s why many corporations and small firms jump into flex-office bandwagon.

  • It’s recommended to NOT choose flex-office plan if most of the work done in the office is “knowledge-based” (such as research and planning).

  • Combi-offices are shown to provide many benefits in terms of both privacy, control over work-space and individual identity of each staff to call the part of the office as “my desk”.

  • Conventional offices while provide greater privacy and concentration, are costly to form and maintain and they hamper with ready communication among employees. After all, these disadvantages made combi and flex-offices possible!

  • Ultimate point in office layout design is that the office should support both individual and group tasks.
 

Ambient color

The research on color of the walls and furniture in office environments is inconclusive and subject to many subjective and methodical bias.

While seemingly the ambient color affect mood, performance and motivation, the empirical data to prove such causation is incomplete and lack objectivity.

Whether color has implications for performance is also a matter of controversy. 

Creative use of colors in office setup.

Kwallek and Lewis (1990) showed that performance increases when working in red environment comparing to green and white, and the most errors happen in white ambient. 

Contrarily, Stone (2001, 2003) associated red color with lower performance over time.

The effect of colors on mood and morale is more coherent.

It’s been found that using strong warm colors such as red have negative impact on the mood and happiness of the staff4.

Red is also linked to aggressiveness and angry mood. 

In a study by Stone (2001) on students’ performance, they reported that their mood was slightly better when studying in blue carrels (desks) and they were distressed with surrounding red color.

In a review of literature by Schatz and Bower (2005), design implications of color psychology were formulated as several guidelines5 of which I present some:

  • Most people favor to work in socially and culturally acceptable environments. So very unusual color schemes are not recommended.

  • Even slightly, warmer colors are stimulating and cold colors (especially blue) a bit depressing.

  • The above point implies that were the tasks tend to be stressful, a dose of cold colors might reduce stress and anxiety and in contrast, in boring and routine administrative jobs, warmer colors could be stimulating and energizing.

  • Where aggression is a constant issue, pink color can reduce tensions.

  • Keep in mind that all of these implications are subject to cultural norms, changes over time, and roughly definitive. Thus, the effect of the color must not be over-emphasized in design.
 

Furniture selection

In a coming soon article, I discuss how to sit at a computer workstation should be to accommodate to the person’s posture and stature. Nonetheless, few tips about what qualities you must look for when choosing furniture for your office/workstation.

Desks

  • Most of the desks available in the market are static and nonadjustable. What you must look for while shopping for new desks is:

  • The height of the desk be about 75-85 cm. This covers anthropometric characteristics of 90 percent of the population seated.

  • The desk has enough surface to put keyboard, mouse, monitor, a printer and enough margin to put your hands without things falling off.

  • The surface of the desk (any of office furniture if possible) must not reflect light. This helps to reduce indirect glare.

  • Underneath of the desk (the foot room) be completely clear of  drawers and other stuff to not object your legs free roaming.

Chairs

I couldn’t sit in a chair in an office all day. Danny Meye

This quote from a New York millionaire couldn’t be more relevant in today’s
modern life. 

Despite the fact we sit most of our lives, we in fact shouldn’t do.

Much has been written regarding a good chair and there are so many different designs available that one may rightly get confused about choosing a chair. 

Even when the chairs are highly adjustable, people should be informed and trained about these features properly. 

For example, in a study on fifty one English white collars showed that more than half of them had never used any of adjustability functions on their chairs6.

Your ideal chair features:

  • Support your upper back (its back support must be lengthy enough).

  • It must be adjustable on any level possible. If this is not the case (mostly because of higher costs), the priority should be given to seat pan height, back support reclination, arm rests, seat pan angle, head rest (in that order).

  • The seat pan has to be soft enough to absorb some of the counter-pressure of your body’s weight.

  • It’s recommended to have a measure of staff’s body sizes before purchase of new chairs.

Keyboard and mouse

The gist of everything you may need to know about these devices, is that you must not “fight” your way into using them.
The buttons and keys should be smooth to push. Also, the keyboard keys should not be like a big bulge out of the surface, rather just minimally above its surface. The error rate caused by the former type might frustrate you and reduce your composure.

If you can afford, use external but high-quality keyboard and mouse to fit into your ergonomically adjusted workstation agenda7.

Monitors

Today, we can safely disregard CRT monitors anywhere near offices. 

The LCD and LED technology screens come with lots of controls over picture quality, contrast and nearly all of them have screen risers and adjusters that help you to align it with your line of vision.

Just remember the screen has a matte surface and you pause working every 1 hour to not put your eyes in harms way.

 

Telephones

While traditional landline telephones are becoming obsolete at homes, they’re still a powerful and important method of communication in corporations and offices. If your job involves heavy telephoning every day:

  • Put it in your primary work-zone. If you’re right-handed, it’s a good idea to put it on your left side next to the keyboard and vice-versa if you’re left-handed.

  • Don’t hold the headset between your shoulder and neck. This common practice especially among secretaries, put lots of tensions on your neck muscles and lead to chronic pain over time4.
 

Sources:

1         De Been I, Beijer M. The influence of office type on satisfaction and perceived productivity support. J Facil Manag 2014; 12: 142–57.

2         Rieck A, Kelter J. The empirical OFFICE 21® study” Soft Success Factors. In: HCI International. 2005.

3         Blok M, De Korte EM, Groenesteijn L, Formanoy M, Vink P. The effects of a task facilitating working environment on office space use, communication, concentration, collaboration, privacy and distraction. In: Proceedings of the 17th World Congress on Ergonomics (IEA 2009), 9-14 August 2009, Beijing, China. International Ergonomics Association, 2009.

4         McKeown C. Office Ergonomics: Practical Applications. CRC Press, 2007.

5         Schatz SL, Bowers CA. 10 Questions on Room Color: Answers for Workplace Designers. Ergon Des Q Hum Factors Appl 2005; 13: 21–7.

6         Underwood D, Sims R. Do office workers adjust their chairs? End-user knowledge, use and barriers to chair adjustment. Appl Ergon 2019; 77: 100–6.

7         Kroemer AD, H.E. Kroemer K. Office Ergonomics: Ease and Efficiency at Work. CRC Press, 2016
https://www.crcpress.com/Office-Ergonomics-Ease-and-Efficiency-at-Work-Second-Edition/Kroemer-Kroemer/p/book/9781498747943.

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