How Design Impacts the Workplace, According to a New Study

ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID
ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID
Photo of Amber C. Snider
Home & Design Editor19 December 2017

Most working adults spend at least half their waking hours in the office. A new study from ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) shows how human-centric workplace design can affect productivity, happiness levels, and even cost savings.

ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID

When it comes to work satisfaction, most people think of a few factors: their relationships with their co-workers and boss, room for upward mobility, feeling of appreciation, ability to maintain a work/life balance, and of course, their pay. But what about their office space? ASID’s new study shows that the physical design of the workplace may have more of an influence of well-being and productivity than you think.

Earlier this year, ASID’s new headquarters in Washington, D.C. received an unprecedented LEED Platinum rating and WELL Platinum certification, making it the “healthiest” and greenest office space on the planet. But they weren’t just satisfied with the fancy titles and accolades—they also wanted to put these certifications to the test.

The record-breaking office space, designed by world-renowned architecture firm Perkins+Will, is considered a living laboratory for the design community. ASID, in partnership with Delos, Cornell University, and the Innovative Workplace Institute, researched just how this design impacts workers’ behavior and performance, including how spatial design supports the company’s goals.

ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID

Through a series of interviews, surveys, and sociometric and interior environmental data, the researchers found that there were notable improvements all around, including employee’s health—all of which were attributed to the wellness-oriented design. Improvements (compared to their previous office) included employee retention, performance, productivity, communication, and environmental satisfaction.

CEOs reluctant to take on this progressive workplace design model (for fear that it costs too much in overhead) can rest assured, as researchers found that all this productivity and happiness results in cost savings. In other words, a productive, design-conscious workplace actually saves money.

ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID

Before designing the office, ASID had to first nail down and analyze their own corporate identity and value systems. They wanted the design to mirror their values, and complement their everyday work flow processes. (Mindful, right?). Their criteria was straightforward: design an energy-efficient space that stimulates collaboration, creates attachment, establishes support and employee retention, and encourages healthy behaviors and productivity. They also wanted the design to have an ROI, because, after all, it is a business.

So what were the most important, influential key factors at work in the design? First, it starts with indoor air quality. ASIS required that all product finishes and interior paints, including coatings, adhesives, and sealants, met multiple standards (VOC reduction design). They also used an air filtration system that purifies both outdoor and recirculated air, while keeping CO2 levels below 800ppm during the main business hours.

ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID

Another important factor in the enhanced employee conditions had to do with lighting and sound-reduction. By implementing circadian lighting in the new office, 25% of employees noted enhanced sleep quality at night. By implementing acoustics, the average sound levels in the new office were reduced, measuring half the noise compared to the old space.

Speech and visual privacy also played a role in the “happiness” factor. Dr. Ganz Ferrance, a Canadian psychologist, commented in a previous interview on the negative effect of constant visibility in the workplace, “Lack of privacy in the workplace adds to your sense of stress and sense of being exposed. In one sense it’s like you’re being spied on sometimes, like the company always seems like they need to be watching. Not having any space or any ability to have some downtime throughout the day can be very stressful. Some companies will have privacy rooms or areas you can relax and be by yourself; if you don’t have that or that’s hard to get, that can cause real problems for people.”

During the ASID study, the spatial layout and collective form was a determinate factor in measuring well-being. Space affects us in complex, unconscious ways and we’ve yet to fully understand the depths of its influence on our psyche. ASIS analyzed the “performance of physical workspaces in relation to organizational innovation strategies and innovation performance according to key performance indicators”. The results? The office scored an 83.9% of the total 100 points possible, emphasizing the influence of space size and access, space type, and healthfulness.

ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID

Unassigned seating also played a role; the study showed that lax seating arrangement sparks both spontaneous interactions and cross-pollination among various teams. There was a 42% increase in communication and a 44% increase in “supporting the sharing and exchanging of ideas”. According to research from the Cornell study, the perceived environmental quality improvements also positively impacted employee turnover and retention.

It’s not all about the mind, though. Designers also included a fitness center, sit/stand workstations, healthy snacks, and a wellness room. Within one year, there was a 2% improvement in physical health scores of employees. Sure, it’s a well-known fact that happy employees are productive employees, but most don’t correlate that “happiness” and productivity with the actual design of the workplace.

The bottom line is that the construction of the office space matters. A lot.

ASID HQ, Washington D.C. | © ASID

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