Office design and physiology – the research

14 August 2015. Feature.

Remember those fine words by Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”? Wise words, and to this day we are still exploring ‘how’ exactly our built environments have such capacity to shape our state of minds, our stress levels, productivity and creative abilities.

Award winning furniture company Herman Miller decided to further explore this notion in more depth, and discover how the design of an office space actually affect brain activity, as well as behaviour, and if so, how? And that’s exactly what they looked to discovering when the Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Neuroeconomics Studies performed a neurophysiology study on behalf of Herman Miller.

The study examined how three different office settings affected individual physiology through monitoring hormones, cardiac activity, palmar sweat and respiration of 96 participants. The group was roughly split along gender lines, and the average participant age was 43.5 years and represented a range of professions, both technical and non-technical.

The office layouts which were studied by Claremont included a Jump Space, Plaza and Cove. All three research locations were open plan with similar furniture to what would be found in the typical office environment. Participants were studied in groups of four and their physiology was monitored in real time as they completed two tasks; one problem solving, the other mathematical.

Jump Space

The Jump Space provides touch down areas that facilitate work for certain periods of times. With workstations around its perimeter and moderate foot traffic, the Jump Space in the study had moderate privacy for its standing-height table and stools, and average maximal sound levels. The natural light entering the space was from high above, or indirect.

The study concluded that a Jump Space correlated with the highest increase in mood in participants due to the high traffic and discretion. In the Jump Space setting, work performance, mood and morale were boosted. Lastly, the Jump Space increased the ability to complete the group technical task of reassembling an apple peeler by using directions.

Overall, the Jump Space used in the study proved that this quick touch down space can increase creativity, happiness and productivity within the work place.

Plaza

Unlike a Jump Space or Cove, Plazas are public spaces situated at points of the high trafficked areas within the office. Plazas are open and encourage mixing, mingling and multiple work activities in tandem. A Plaza hosts a space that is inviting and welcoming with higher rates of noise and natural light within the space. In the study, the strongest correlation between positive mood and performance was found in a Plaza setting.

In a Plaza space the individuals had the highest baseline happiness and experienced an increase in mood after completing the individual and group tasks. Also, the Plaza space had more noise, natural light, foot traffic, and openness. Participants within the Plaza setting had the highest ability to complete the group task efficiently as a team.

Therefore, rather than being seen as a luxury or diversion, high-traffic areas like a Plaza can increase mood, increase performance, decrease stress and enhance creativity.

Cove

Herman Miller defined the Cove as a compact space within proximity to individual work points or common areas that enables people to assemble and engage with each other for a short time.

The Cove for this study was semi-private, with workstations to the side of it and behind it and foot traffic around it. Although it was less busy than the Jump Space, it was noisier.

Those in the study who worked within a Cove showed the largest improvements in mood and in turn, increased productivity. With a secluded area, the Cove provided a quieter environment for individuals which in turn significantly improved individual moods.

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