How does office design affect productivity?
2 October 2018

How does office design affect productivity?

Workplace design can be overlooked when trying to solve the causes of low productivity. Here are four key areas employers should be focusing on


Barry Chignell

Barry Chignell

Barry Chignell worked in Ciphr's marketing team from 2012-2020.




Workplace design can be overlooked when trying to solve the causes of low productivity. Here are four key areas employers should be focusing on

Low productivity has been a near-constant worry for UK organisations of all shapes and sizes since the 2008 financial crisis. The 2017 Skills and Employment Survey, released in October 2018, found that although British people are working harder and faster than ever, their productivity continues to stagnate.

Workplace design can be overlooked when it comes to analysing the causes of low productivity. A well-planned workspace can make it easier for people to complete tasks more quickly and effectively, work together more collaboratively and creatively, and have a positive effect on their health, wellbeing, and engagement.

Here are four key aspects of office design that can affect productivity – for better, or for worse. 

1. Personal workspaces

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.

If you want to streamline and simplify your workspace, consider:

  • Filing digital and paper documents in an organised system of folders. Swapping your HR filing cabinet for a specialist HR system is a great first step to decluttering your office space
  • Keep the items you use most frequently close by, and tidy away those items you only use occasionally
  • Recycle or delete documents you no longer need – making sure to shred any commerically sensitive or personal information before disposing of it 

2. Ergonomics

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 can then lead to absence and associated costs for your organisation.

Ergonomic considerations for different types of workplaces vary significantly. For a typical desk-based office 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

 3. Environmental design

Workplace design can have a profound impact on people’s health and wellbeing beyond simple ergonomics. For example:

  • Poor ventilation and heating/air-conditioning systems can lead to discomfort and health problems
  • 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
  • High noise levels can make it difficult for employees to concentrate, and to talk to their colleagues – both in person and on the phone – leading to lowered productivity and morale. Creating a range of working spaces – such as informal meeting areas and quiet nooks for deep work – can make a big difference
  • 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 

4. Types of working spaces

A well-thought-out workplace should offer a variety of types of spaces in which people can work, and have the right technology and organisational culture in place to support their working in different spaces when they feel it’s useful. The flexible spaces can also be used for lunch breaks, and informal catch-ups, to engineer serendipitous run-ins of people in different teams and departments, and to accommodate remote workers when they visit your HQ.

Employees’ core working spaces – typically their desks – should give them the space to work individually and also the opportunity to communicate and collaborate with others in their team. Desks separated by dividers, for example, subtly discourage conversations between team members.

You might also want to consider how the workspace is decorated. Is it sterile and white? Do the wall colours reflect your organisation’s branding? Are you using plants to bring a sense of the outside, inside? Just as it’s unlikely that you will feel at home in a minimalist house with endless magnolia walls and little decoration or personalisation, a sparse office can have a similar negative effect on employees. Go beyond the basics of what people need to make your organisation run smoothly and efficiently and think about what makes them feel more creative, inspired and engaged at work – whether that’s a splash of colour or some simple comfortable seating areas.

This article was first published in July 2014. It was updated in October 2018 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.