How does office design affect productivity?



Read time
10 mins

Don’t underestimate how office design affects productivity; whether you’re working at home or on-site, here’s how to set up your environment for success

Whether you’re working at home, or on-site, the importance of how office design affects productivity can’t be underestimated.

Small and medium-sized businesses in the UK have been beset with productivity problems for years, despite senior leaders’ and HR teams’ efforts, and investments in new technology such as HR software. In fact, UK productivity grew just 0.5% per year between 2008 and 2020, compared with growth of around 2.3% per year between 1974 and 2008.

But how does productivity relate to office design? Getting the layout of an office right for a variety of workers – and a variety of roles – has always been tricky. And it’s been made more challenging by the increase in remote and hybrid working, which, in many cases, means offices are under-occupied – and employees are left trying to figure out how to be productive when working at home). Unproductive employees, therefore, are sadly the norm for many organisations; a 2022 study found that only 12% of workers contribute ‘fully’ to their task work for more than six hours a day.

So, how can workplace design help to make you happy? And what’s the relationship between office layout and employee productivity? Here are 10 things you need to know.

How office design affects productivity: 10 things you need to know


1. Working in an open-plan office will probably decrease your productivity

A 2019 survey of UK workers by Savills UK found that 37% of people who work in an open-plan office believe that the design of their workplace decreases their productivity levels.

One major contributing factor might be high noise levels, which make it difficult for employees to concentrate, and to talk to their colleagues – leading to unproductive employees and low morale. In your on-site office environment, consider creating a range of working spaces – such as informal meeting areas and quiet nooks for deep work – which can make a big difference to productivity.

If you’re a home or remote worker, the same principles apply; if you can use a designated room to work in, you’ll probably be more productive than if you’re working in a space that’s shared with housemates or family.

If a private space (at home or in the office) isn’t an option, think about how you can create privacy and opportunities to get in the ‘flow’ of work; headphones, music, and earplugs are effective ways to block out noises and reduce distractions.


2. Working in an open-plan office might also be bad for your health

In a 2021 meta-analysis of other papers, researchers found that working in an open-plan office is associated with negative outcomes for many measures related to employee satisfaction, productivity, health, and social relationships. Overall health measures tend to decrease, and stress levels tend to rise, among people working in open-plan offices. “Environmental characteristics of particular concern included noise and distractions, poor privacy, lighting and glare, and poorer temperature control,” said the researchers.


3. Your office’s design might be causing, not reducing, the volume of digital distractions

It might seem counterintuitive, but a 2018 research study found that open-plan offices led to a significant drop in face-to-face interactions among employees (by about 70%), and a rise in electronic interactions such as email and instant messages (IMs). The use of IM apps – such as Slack and Microsoft Teams – has only risen in the years since the study was published, so it’s safe to assume that the problem is even more severe now. And, consider that, in hybrid organisations, workers in the on-site office will likely need to collaborate with teammates and colleagues who are working remotely, and the impact of digital distractions rises even further. Context switching is costly; refocusing on a task after a distraction, such as an IM or email, can take as long as 23 minutes, according to a study by the University of California, Irvine.


4. An inherently unhealthy office environment will cause productivity problems

Office design can have a profound impact on people’s health and wellbeing beyond simple ergonomics, which in turn impacts their productivity (for better and for worse). For example:

  • Poor ventilation and heating/air-conditioning systems can lead to discomfort and health problems. In 2003 research by the World Green Building Council, increasing the volume of fresh air in office spaces resulted in an 11% boost in productivity levels
  • Inadequate lighting can lead to eye strain, tiredness, stress, and headaches. Try to take advantage of natural lighting as much as possible, and introduce adjustable lighting systems if you can
  • Offices lend themselves naturally to sedentary behaviour; equipping yours with facilities such as bicycle parking and showers will encourage people to walk, run and cycle more. The benefits of exercise on work and productivity have been well-researched: increased activity levels have been associated with a greater ability to plan, remember information and make decisions, as well as with improved alertness, greater energy, and reduced levels of stress and anger   

 Further reading: How does exercise improve work productivity?


5. A clean desk can help – but not for everyone

For many employees, a disorganised, chaotic workspace makes it more difficult and time-consuming to tackle their to-do list. Others may prefer a messier environment; a 2017 study by the University of Minnesota suggests that ‘creative geniuses’ prefer a cluttered, busy workspace. Bear in mind, too, that neurodivergent employees (such as those with ADHD) – who may process information in different ways to ‘neurotypical folk’ – may need to visually process information and documents in order to be productive.


6. Good ergonomics will help you be more comfortable, reduce injuries, and aid productivity

The aim of ergonomic practice is to improve the conditions under which everyday activities are performed in the workplace, which helps to minimise any potential associated health risks and reduce strain and fatigue.

Poor desk setups can affect workers’ hands, wrists, joints and backs, which, if left unchecked, can cause injury and absence from work.

Ergonomic considerations for different types of workplaces vary significantly. For a typical desk-based role, consider:

  • Using a laptop or screen support so the monitor is positioned correctly, enabling you to adopt the best-possible seated position
  • Using a footrest if your feet cannot comfortably rest on the floor naturally
  • Using rests for the keyboard and mouse to ensure your hands, wrists and forearms are not under strain


7. ‘Appropriate’ office design will lead to higher productivity

The 2019 Savills UK study mentioned earlier also found that 65% of workers believe that, if the design of their office reflected their ideal workplace, their productivity levels would rise. Of course, it won’t be possible to design a single workplace layout that suits every individual’s needs, but when was the last time your organisation asked employees what they want from their office? Or, if you are a hybrid or remote-working organisation, have you asked employees if the layout of their home office is getting in the way of them doing their jobs, and offering them solutions (or even funds) to remedy those issues? Savills UK found that just a third (34%) of people have been asked their opinion of their workplace by their employer – so maybe it’s time to invite your people to share their views on how office design could be altered to improve their productivity. Remember, employee autonomy is an important factor in engagement, job satisfaction and, of course, productivity.

If you don’t provide your people with the right office environment to flourish, they could be a flight risk: a 2019 study by Dell found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of UK office workers would consider leaving their organisation if their workplace environment didn’t inspire them to fulfil their role.


8. Don’t default to magnolia: the right paint colour choice can boost performance

Different paint colours are thought to inspire different moods; whether you want your employees to chill and enjoy a bit of downtime, or switch into focus mode, picking the right colour for each part of your office workspace is believed to play a major role. Here’s a handy guide to choosing the right colour for the job:

  • Yellow – encourages optimism, creativity, enthusiasm, and mental clarity
  • Red – stimulating, can be motivating if used sparingly
  • White – simplicity, balance, harmony, and productivity
  • Blue – calmness, tranquillity, focus
  • Green – renewal, stress reduction, concentration
  • Lavender – improves focus, communication, and clarity of thought


9. Intentionally designing an office with specific purposes in mind will aid productivity

Many employers have historically viewed the office as the place to extract maximum productivity from their people. But, found a 2022 report from Owl Labs, 62% of workers feel more productive when working remotely rather than in the office (11% felt less productive when working remotely).

Workers also report feeling most productive in the office when their work is focused around specific types of tasks, such as meeting new people (59%), managing others (51%) and holding team meetings (51%). Workers were split on the best location for brainstorming and innovating, found the report, with 39% preferring the on-site office, and 37% preferring their home office. So the next time you call your remote or hybrid team into the office for an anchor day, think carefully about what spaces you’re providing them with, and what tasks you’re asking them to complete while they are there.


10. Adding just one plant could boost your memory

The benefits of plants in the office is well-documented – they help to reduce stress, lower sickness rates, purify the air, reduce noise levels, and make the area more attractive. But one academic study even showed that introducing one plant per square metre could boost your memory retention – therefore aiding productivity.

Getting office design right is just one piece of the ‘productivity puzzle’

The impact of a well-design office on employee productivity cannot be underestimated; a study by the American Society of Interior Designers found that those workers who liked their office environment are 31% more likely to be satisfied in their job. And job satisfaction, and employee engagement, are crucial factors in helping organisations to operate as productively as possible.

Technology and training are other crucial components to solving the so-called ‘productivity puzzle’; so, whether you’re struggling to operate efficiently as an HR department because you’re hampered by outdated HR systems; are seeking recruitment software that helps your business scale through a rapid growth phase; or need high-quality off-the-shelf eLearning courses that move the dial in areas ranging from diversity and inclusion to management skills, Ciphr is here to help. Explore our products and services pages to discover more, or why not watch our helpful webinar on signs you’ve outgrown your HR system? Then, if you’re ready to speak to one of our friendly experts, tell us what your challenges are and we’ll arrange a call to discuss how our solutions could help.

Alternatively, take a look at further articles in our productivity series:


This article was first published in October 2018. It was updated in July 2023 for freshness, clarity, and accuracy.