The Science of Office Design

From ceiling height to lighting, there's more research than ever before on how our environment impacts our cognitive performance.

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By Laura Entis

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Revelations in the realm of neuroscience, social science and behavioral science are all having a profound influence on workspace design. As researchers continue to pinpoint the cognitive impact of individual architectural elements, we can alter our environment accordingly.

"It's never been a better time for design," says Scott Wyatt, a managing partner at NBBJ, a global architectural firm that has designed headquarters for a number of tech companies including Amazon, Google and Samsung. "We have the tools, we have the research."

Architecture has been long been a profession that champions experience and the intuition that grows out of that, adds Andrew Heumann, a designer at NBBJ. "But now, through the lenses of science and simulation, we are able to supplement, support and even challenge our intuition about what makes a great space," he says. "Through tests, we can understand the consequences of a particular design on the workers who are operating within it."

Related: How to Create a Productive Office Space

Here's a look at the research behind some of the key elements of the workspace.

Ceiling height: "There's a lot of research coming out that higher ceilings promote higher performance in conceptual thinking, while lower ceilings are better for mathematical thinking," says Wyatt. Intuitively, it makes sense that higher ceilings would encourage expansive work such as making overarching connections while lower ceilings are optimal for focused, contained tasks.

Wyatt has anecdotal evidence that supports the research. Recently, he was walking through the offices of a software company operating out of a loft like space. When he got to the area where the programmers sat, he noticed that many of them had built tent like structures over their desks, effectively lowering the ceiling height. "When you become aware of some of these things," he says, "you start to see how people adapt to spaces accordingly."

Distance: "We've been carefully studying the relationship between travel distance and organizational interaction," says Heumann. The results? "How far you have to walk to get from your desk to someone else's desk radically transforms the likelihood that you will interact with that person." Again, this is an intuitive observation, yet its implications are important. "There are specific thresholds; if you sit more than an 80-foot walk away from someone, you are much less likely to talk to them on a daily basis than if you sit closer," Heumann says. And it's not just office small talk that tapers off as your physical distance from a co-worker increases -- the likelihood that you'll collaborate on a project decreases as well. In a recent study, paper co-authorship among academics was closely correlated to the physical proximity between researchers' offices. "Travel time often guides our design process," Heumann says. "We want to encourage collaboration."

Related: We Asked, You Answered: 10 Workspaces That Get Your Creative Juices Flowing

Visibility: Simply glancing at someone once increases the likelihood that you will interact with them, says Heumann, who has done multiple computational studies that simulate the number of visual connections an employee makes with his or her co-workers over the course of a day.

Because even the briefest of glimpses can serve as a reminder to get in contact later, "we keep in mind how our design can impact visibility metrics," Hemann says. He recommends placing circulation networks, such as staircases and primary corridors, in the middle of the building if possible.

Nature: The biophilia hypothesis – that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems – has been around since 1984. Recent research, however, has confirmed that a visual connection to the outdoors has an enormous cognitive impact. "Our human responses to nature, be it a plant, fresh air or a view of the sky are shown to have enormous influence over our stress level, as well as our performance," says Wyatt.

Unfortunately, it seems only real nature will do. A recent study compared people who work next to a blank wall, people who work next to a window with a view, and people who work next to a simulated video of that same view. Heumann, who places a high amount of trust in the powers of technology, was surprised by the results: "While the window enhanced both stress recovery and cognitive performance, the screen wasn't any better than the blank wall."

Related: What's the Top Benefit of Co-Working Spaces?

Noise: Architects have long contemplated the acoustics of a space, but now considerations are getting downright scientific. "Thinking about how sound affects productivity and creativity is a new frontier," says Heumann. "We now have a pretty well established threshold for the level of noise that is distracting and the level of quiet that is districting. The sweet spot is around 70 decimals – that's enough noise to provide creative energy, but it's not so silent that you feel trapped."

Light: Instinctively, we know that light is important: Would you rather work in natural light or under a florescent glare? But once again, new scientific studies are breaking apart our innate response into specific reactions. Warm light (i.e. light that with a relatively low temperatures on the Kelvin scale) has been shown to decrease stress levels and boost cognitive performance. Airlines have capitalized on this research as well, in an effort to ease jittery fliers. On the latest Boeing 787, during takeoffs and landings, warm light floods the cabin. "It's great," Wyatt says. "Boeing is starting to use neuroscience as a way to make travel better."

That our environment has a significant effect on our mental state is not new revelation by any means. But both Wyatt and Heumann stress that the availability of tangible data points, which can show us exactly how design elements impact our performance and productivity, is dramatically changing the game.

Companies, for one, are finally taking notice. "It wasn't that many years ago that we were trying to sell the idea that your environment should be used as a business tool," says Wyatt. "Now, most clients are coming to us with that expectation in mind."

Related: What Your Desk Says About You

And while the available research can inspire major redesigns, it can also be used to make quick, efficient and cheap changes.

"Consider your lunch tables," Heumann says. "By switching out small tables for larger ones, smaller groups will naturally merge into larger groups." One study found that simply by changing the size of the tables in an office cafeteria, employees were 36 percent more likely to interact with one another at other points in the day, which noticeably boosted both collaboration and productivity.

That larger tables increases interaction may seem intuitive, but that's exactly the point, says Heumann. All this research "is as much about bringing obvious elements to our attention as it is about challenging our assumptions."

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for's Venture section.

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