With fluctuating office trends and recent workplace shifts, it can be hard to create a productive and comfortable environment for employees. That is why Interior Motions has compiled the most impactful industry insights into one comprehensive guide to office design.
A Brief History of the Workplace
The Future of Work
Effective Use of Color
A Consideration of Nature
Comfort as a Priority
Products for Comfort
The average person will spend more than 90,000 hours in an office over the course of their lifetime. That is equivalent to nearly one third of a person’s life span. If given the choice between spending 90,000 hours in a dark, gloomy dungeon or in a light, airy workspace, most people would presumably choose the latter. For that reason, office design is not only an integral part of employee satisfaction, but in personal wellbeing.
Scientists have been studying this linkage between personal wellbeing and physical environments for decades. The research concludes that one’s surroundings has a dramatic effect on mood, energy, productivity, judgment, executive functioning, and mental health. This further demonstrates the importance of investing in the workplace.
The question then becomes, what is a “good environment” particularly in the context of the workplace? What we do know is that a productive office environment goes far beyond what is visually pleasing to employees. In fact, many employees who spend copious amounts of time in the office become desensitized to their surroundings through a process called “attentional blindness.” This means that after a while, employees may not notice the clutter in the breakroom or the trash can in the corner, but their other senses subconsciously take in other stimuli like temperature, scents, noises. Therefore, to create a productive environment within the workplace, one must take a holistic approach to office design.
A holistic approach to office design starts with identifying the individual needs of employees and the needs of the company. Between the infinite variations of the human experience coupled with the diverse objectives of various companies, it would be impossible to create a comprehensive blueprint for office design. (Wouldn't that be nice if we could though?) Instead, this document draws from a vast archive of industry research as well as Interior Motions’ 30+ years of experience helping customers achieve optimal spaces in order to bring you an actionable guide to office design.
Covid-19 was the most recent catalyst that enabled us to reimagine work. However, if we take a broader look at workplace history, you will notice that the “office” has always been in flux to reflect the ever-changing needs of humans.
Believe it or not, working from home is not a post-pandemic invention. Some of the earliest hunter-gatherer civilizations also preferred the work-from-home work model. They recognized that having a workspace that doubled as a living space was an effective way to maximize land and resources. Additionally, working from home was common during medieval times as civilians would conduct their business from workshops adjoined to their homes. It wasn’t until 1906 that society adopted a workplace model that most closely resembles our modern perception of the workplace–– with rows of desks and an open layout.
This new workplace became the dominant work style from 1906 to roughly 2020, until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to stay-at-home mandates, in-office functioning became impossible, and the number of people working from home skyrocketed from 20% to 71%. Now nearly 74% of American companies use a hybrid model to complete their operations.
If historical work patterns are any indication of future work patterns (and we strongly believe they are), then the one thing we can know for certain is that the workplace will continue to evolve. Thus, the workplaces that are the most equipped to adapt and change will be the most successful down the line.
As we have already established, the future of work looks different for everyone. While certain companies are doubling down on the traditional in-person work model, others companies are welcoming the hybrid work-model with open arms.
One advocate of the hybrid work-model is Ryan Anderson, VP of Global Research & Insights at MillerKnoll as well as the host of the podcast Looking Forward: Conversations about the Future of Work. He suggests that if executed correctly, the hybrid work model can make the physical office a better destination for productivity, collaboration, and employee well-being.
How can having less people in the office at all times make the office a better place? According to Anderson, it gives companies the opportunity to design offices the way they were intended to be designed. Prior to the pandemic, companies claimed to want a workplace that promoted innovation and collaboration, yet with every new hire, they crammed more individual workstations into their floor plan. With a sea of desks eating up valuable real estate, there was no room for anything except heads-down work. Now that many employees can complete individual work from home, workplaces can now feature a wide array of work settings, collaborative spaces, and communal areas.
Interestingly, hybrid-work might be just the first frontier of future office design. In a recent MillerKnoll survey, Debbie Lovich, Managing Director & Senior Partner in the Boston office of Boston Consulting Group, explained, “Covid enabled us to rethink work, but for office workers, the world has focused too narrowly on hybrid work. In 2023, I hope organizations expand their definition of better work to explore flexibility in hours, roles, leadership styles, and collaboration modes to create real agency, flexibility, trust, and accountability for all employees.”
As the pandemic demonstrated, no one can predict the future. The best thing a company can do is to implement flexible practices that can be adapted to withstand the test of time. In terms of office design, that looks like offering a wide variety of work settings to support employees’ individual work styles and needs. In other words, the workplace should be equipped with things like numerous communal areas for socialization, collaborative spaces for group work, and private offices for heads-down work.
An easy way to achieve a variety of work settings is to invest in flexible office products. For example, mobile furniture pieces can be moved on a moment’s notice to accommodate an impromptu meeting. Modular walls can be used to create semi-private workspaces if an employee is struggling to focus. Phone booths provide employees with a space to make private phone calls. Acoustic solutions are another important facet of flexible workspaces because if sound is managed everywhere, then employees can work anywhere.
All these solutions are intended to free people from just one, stagnant layout. Research has proven that a one-size-fits-all approach to office design not only doesn’t work but can be detrimental to employees. Giving employees the option to choose what setting works best for them signals trust, respect, and agency. In return, employees are more likely to yield greater rates of productivity, making it an advantageous option for all.
While every company is different and every employee is unique, there are fundamental aspects of office design that can be found in any productive workplace. Those aspects include optimal organization, effective use of color, ample natural light, a consideration of nature, and the prioritization of comfort.
Office organization, refers to the process of “grouping office activities so that [tasks can be] executed effectively and economically.” In other words, an office should be arranged in a way that optimizes productivity and creates the fewest obstacles for employees. For example, departments that often work in collaboration should be in close proximity to one another. Interior Motions has had many clients over the years whose primary struggle was caused by ineffective office configurations. To combat this, we often look at the floorplan, meet with various individuals from different departments to understand their needs, inventory their products, and then we identify the best possible layout for them.
If you are in the process of organizing your office, try asking yourself these questions:
Making these considerations early on will hopefully help you avoid having to do a massive and expensive overhaul down the road.
Paint color is arguably the most important factor when it comes to establishing the mood for an environment. The impact of color has been proven on a scientific level: “certain hues will make us feel more energetic, or they can be calming. Some even produce feelings of aggression or depression.” Therefore, it is essential to choose an office color that aligns with your objectives and the atmosphere you want to create. Since color has the ability to drastically change the appearance of an office, paint is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve your space.
Picking a paint color is easier said than done. There are virtually thousands of colors to choose from, which can feel overwhelming. Valerie Williams, one of the Designers at Interior Motions, offers these guidelines for choosing an office paint color:
Would you rather work at a desk right next to a window or inside a dimly lit cubicle? Chances are that you answered the window, right? This is because humans innately crave natural light as a means of regulating their circadian rhythms. This leads to improved sleep, which translates to more productivity during awake hours. Additionally, HMC Architects report that natural light also correlates with reduced eye strain, fewer headaches, improved mood, less drowsiness, and fewer mistakes. This demonstrates just how important it is to have a brightly lit workplace.
For offices with floor-to-ceiling windows, it is easy to bring in ample natural light. However, if your building has only a couple windows, all hope is not lost. To make your space seem lighter, opt for furniture pieces that are low to the ground to not block any sunlight coming in. You can also select bright or reflective colors that give the illusion of lightness. Lastly, Luis Escobar recommends making use of artificial light specifically engineering to mimic natural light, which you can further adjust to reflect the mood you want to establish.
All productive workplaces consider nature in the design of their office because they recognize the innate human desire to be close to nature. The technical term for this innate human desire is called “Biophilia” and it is becoming an increasingly prevalent aspect of interior design. During an Interior Motions interview with plant specialist Miranda Gill, Gill notes that employers can leverage this human instinct to create more attractive workplaces simply by bringing more greenery into the office.
Not only are plants great for visual appeal, studies show that plants can reduce stress, increase productivity, reduce sickness and absence rates, purify the air, boost creativity, and reduce noise levels. In his most well-known study, environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich compared “how quickly patients healed after gallbladder surgery. He found that the patients who were put in a room with a view of the grove of trees consistently healed faster than those whose windows looked out on a brick wall.” Therefore, even if you don’t have a particularly green thumb, plants should be a permanent fixture of the workplace.
Prioritizing comfort is arguably the trickiest tenant of good office design because comfort is a very multifaceted concept. On a practical note, comfort refers to the quality of products in the office and the ways in which employees interact with them. On an abstract level, comfort refers to the overall atmosphere created by the people and attitudes present on a daily basis–– both on a conscious and subconscious level. While the latter is far more difficult to achieve, they are both essential strands in the tapestry of a productive workplace.
Working 8+ hours a day at a desk puts you at inherent risk for conditions like increased blood pressure, back pain, depression, abnormal cholesterol levels, etc. Ergonomic products are designed to minimize the likelihood of these conditions through their application of “psychological and physiological principles.” More simply put, ergonomic products are specifically engineered to keep you healthy and happy at work. Melody Gratic, an expert on ergonomics, claims that protecting your employees with ergonomic products reduces absenteeism, giving employers a return on their investment. Therefore, every office should be equipped with ergonomic desks, task chairs, keyboards, and computer monitors whenever possible.
Ergonomic chairs mitigate the aforementioned ailments by enabling the user to sit in the body’s ideal posture. To achieve the ideal posture, one’s feet should stay flat on the ground, the pelvis should remain in a neutral position, the spine should maintain its natural ‘S’ shape, etc.
Since all bodies are different, making one fixed chair that supports all these requirements for everyone would be impossible. Therefore, a defining feature of ergonomic chairs is adjustability. The more components of a chair that you can adjust and cater to your individual measurements, the better. Chair Office lists several adjustable features that one should look for when purchasing an ergonomic chair.
1. Adjustable Seat Height
Ergonomic Chairs should have adjustable seats that can be maneuvered up or down to ensure that the user’s feet remain flat on the floor. Tall people need seats that can be moved up, whereas shorter people need seats closer to the ground.
2. Adjustable Seat Width and Depth
The seat width refers to the size of the seat and the depth of the seat refers to the space between the seat and the back of the knees. According to the Chair Office, “The proper seat depth should leave between 2 and 4 inches between the edge of the seat and the back of your knees. If the seat is too far forward, it may put undue pressure at the back of the knees.”
3. Adjustable Seat Tilt
Seat tilt affects the position of the pelvis. It is important to keep the pelvis in a neutral position while working at one’s desk.
4. Adjustable Back Support
The human spine naturally resembles an ‘S’ shape, so an ergonomic chair typically offers a lumbar support to maintain that curvature. An adjustable lumbar support can be moved up or down, depending on the individual’s spine.
5. Adjustable Recline
Some people prefer to recline throughout the day to alleviate the weight of the upper body. An ergonomic chair allows you to remain upright or to lean your body backwards at your convenience.
6. Adjustable Armrests
If the armrest is positioned too high, it will cause your shoulders to tense up towards your neck. Ergonomic armrests allow the user to achieve a 90 degree bend at the elbow and relax the shoulders.
There are a wide variety of desks on the market today, but the best desk for employee health and well-being is a sit-to-stand desk. Sit-to-stand desks are ergonomic work surfaces that allow users to easily change positions throughout the workday.
Research from the University of Waterloo suggests that people should spend 30 minutes of every hour standing at their workstation. Simple benefits of periodically standing at work include increased circulation, reduced back pain, improved mood.
At Interior Motions, our mission is to transform offices into hubs for productivity, innovation, and wellbeing. However, a workplace is far more than just a building with furniture; it is the people, the attitudes, the beliefs. That is why it is imperative to establish a comfortable office culture that embraces and supports diversity–– and that is not as easy as swapping out chairs. It requires an ongoing commitment to prioritizing your people, accepting feedback, and taking the necessary action to evolve your practices.
In doing so, you not only improve employee wellbeing but your bottom line as well. Miguel Castro, the global lead for diversity and inclusion at SAP, claims that “When people are comfortable and can express themselves in an authentic way, they are more likely to perform better, which increases engagement and contributes to the organization as a whole,” said Castro.
While designing a workplace for a better tomorrow is a complex and nuanced task, it is not impossible. Industry leaders like MillerKnoll are at the forefront of workplace research, and they continue to develop product solutions for the modern world. These insights coupled with Interior Motions’ commitment to client satisfaction, we can help you design a workplace that enables employees to thrive. If you would like to learn more about our services or explore a potential partnership, please visit interiormotions.com.