There's science behind the impact of workplace design on employee productivity. To understand this science, we recently sat down with Anja Jamrozik, Ph.D., Director of Research at Montreal-based flexible workspace provider Breather.
Breather provides private workspace that can be booked from 2 hours to 2 years or more. Companies turn to Breather for everything from meetings and offsites, to longer-term office needs such as a new HQ or regional team space. Inherent to Breather’s customer experience is providing space that is flexible to the shifting needs of businesses and their employees.
Jamrozik has expertise in many areas and primarily serves as a behavioral scientist working to improve the design of the built environment for Breather.
“People’s environment really matters for their performance.”Anja Jamrozik, Ph.D., Director of Research at Breather
“People’s environment really matters for their performance,” she said in our recent conversation. “It’s very hard to concentrate if you’re cold or you don’t have adequate lighting. And that extends to every aspect of the workplace."
Jamrozik's perspective on why psychological and environmental factors are so important can be broken down into an easy-to-understand “ABC" formula: Attention, Behavior, and Comfort. Here, we will walk through the core components of these workplace ABCs that everybody needs to know.
Attention is a tricky animal. It is something that, through discipline and effort, we can control. But only to a degree. At some level, our attention will always roam and become depleted over time.
Without a doubt, our environment plays a major role in how easily everybody can stay in control. Privacy, for example, has a big influence. People are often most productive at accomplishing focus work when they have no distractions.
Then again, being stuck in a drab, isolated room can become detrimental if the work is not captivating and lead to boredom over time even when there is a challenging problem to solve.
“If you’re trying to focus but it’s a boring task, you might want the activity and noise of coffee shop to keep you stimulated,” said Jamrozik. “But if you’re trying to block everything out, then silence is usually better for really demanding tasks."
Attention is also a finite resource.
What is the optimal level of distraction? The answer, unfortunately, is that it depends.
Attention is also a finite resource. A mundane task — like combing through a spreadsheet — tends to drain it quickly. This reality of human psychology cannot be defeated, but environmental factors can play a role in what Jamrozik refers to as restoring attention.
“Nature is a really good example,” she said. “If you’re walking out in the woods, you don’t have to be concentrating on everything. But it engages your attention through the movement, colors, and everything nature has to offer.”
What’s the takeaway? Work environments should provide a mix of spaces that support the different types of attention required to complete different tasks at work.
"Environment really, strongly influences our behavior,” said Jamrozik.
To show just how dramatic this can be, she references one study that relates to collaboration. If an office space has a staircase, incredibly, the people located on different floors are about as likely to organically collaborate as two workers sitting in offices 30 miles apart.
The people located on different floors are about as likely to organically collaborate as two workers sitting in offices 30 miles apart.
“The more difficult it is to access someone else, the less likely we are to do it,” she said. “This has been known for a very long time. So different companies experiment with how they seat people. Some go by function. Some go by project.”
Even the type of food that is available to workers can impact behavior. As you may imagine, being surrounded by apples and bananas generates a different type of behavior than chips and cookies — and caffeinated beverages offer their own stimulus. What you lay out in the breakroom will affect how people behave in the office.
Behavior can also be influenced by time of day. Many people are able to focus more deeply in the morning whereas they find it difficult to buckle down on a task after lunch when they become groggy. Creatives also know that their best ideas generally come not when they are staring intently at a blank page but during unpredictable sparks of insight that magically appear out of thin air while riding the elevator or brushing their teeth.
This is why the structure and order of your activities can be so important. “Many people don’t know this,” she said. "Throughout the day, give yourself mental space to figure things out and tailor your actions to whatever you need to be doing."
The last element is comfort. This requirement for effective work should be obvious to anyone who has ever toiled away in a stuffy, poorly designed, outdated office.
“If you are trying to figure out how to get people to be productive,” she said, “consider their comfort. Usually, comfort correlates pretty well with productivity.”
The best part? Measuring comfort is quite a bit easier to accomplish than incorporating some of the commonly used complex methodologies to track productivity.
By and large, you can just ask your workers how comfortable they are in different situations and workspaces to come up with subjective satisfaction scores. This will also enable you to determine which aspects truly matter to employees.
For most people, these things tend to be privacy, temperature, lighting, and acoustics. But Jamrozik also highlights one critical aspect to remember: There is no one ideal environment.
Much like our comfort foods, workplace comfort factors will vary from person to person. And if that’s not enough to wrestle with, they will even change for individual workers depending upon what type of task they are doing.
Learning Your ABCs
By now, it should be clear: Environment and performance will forever be linked.
Spaces that are ideal for focus work won’t necessarily foster successful collaborative brainstorming sessions. The optimal level of distraction is not zero — at least not all the time. Attention will fall over time but can be restored. Physical aspects of the building design will impact behavior. And comfort, above almost everything else, will always be a key driver of productivity.
Knowing all this, a sensible reaction from organizations is to listen to their employees and provide a variety of different working environments, conditions, and physical spaces. Experimentation and employee feedback will go a long way toward dialing in the right balance.
Experimentation and employee feedback will go a long way toward dialing in the right balance.
Eventually, you can get there. But where should you start?
What does Jamrozik consider the ideal workspace? “If I were to design a perfect focus space,” she said, "it would have natural light, a nice view, silence, comfort, and a place to move around.”