What are the design elements of a great workplace?

A great workplace? Company culture and what you do for a living aside, the design of your office could hugely influence your productivity, health and even your happiness.

Fast Company published an article piece on “What will work look like in 2030?” which highlights that “the idea of work in the past 15 years has changed so much that it’s difficult to imagine what the next 15 years will look like”. However, identifying the ideas, trends, and behaviours allow us to recognise key elements of workplace design to implement for a productive workforce today.

The CIPD is UK’s leading professional body for HR and people development that champions for better work and working lives. Their recent post on the elements of building excellence based on scientific research offers some insight for creating an effective workplace design.

Open-plan isn’t always healthy

For a lot of companies embracing open office space, communication and collaboration among employees is key. Traditional offices often hinder communication as employees come to work, often keep to themselves within their offices and go home. Open offices can sometimes force the most introverted worker to interact.

Eliminating individual offices, open-office designs remove the hierarchy associated with private and corner offices.  Open floor plans place everyone on a level playing field, which lends itself to a more cohesive office environment where employees respect one another as equals. That is not to say there is not someone in charge, but that person’s position is drawn attention to by his or her personal office space.

However, one of the main concerns regarding open office space for employees: too much noise. The constant communication in these environments can have the opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of collaborating on projects, employees huddle in a corner with their headphones on in hopes of fighting through the noise to get work done.



In recent study of 2,400 workers in Denmark found that as the number of people in a room increased, so did the rate of sick leave. Workers in two-person offices took, on average, 50% more sick leave than those in single-person offices. Working in an open plan office hiked sick levels by 62%.

Elissaveta Marinova writes an excellent pro and cons list in her article Re-thinking the open plan office, with the benefits of open-plan outweighing an cellular approach and suggests a few solutions to making the open plan environment a little less hostile:

  • Activity based working

  • Break-out areas for socialising

  • Creative acoustic solutions

  • Reduced open-back visibility

  • Privacy screens

She summarises as follows:

“Versatility is of the essence in modern open-plan offices. In order to thrive, office design must do away with the fast-decaying open layout and embrace versatility by offering multiple pockets of activity tailored to specific tasks.”


Natural is best

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that employees who work near windows get 46 more minutes of sleep per night than those who don’t see daylight.

Compared to workers in offices without windows, those with windows in the workplace received 173% more white light exposure during work hours and slept an average of 46 minutes more per night. Workers without windows reported lower scores than their counterparts on quality of life measures related to physical problems and vitality. They also had poorer outcomes in measures of overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances and daytime dysfunction.


“The extent to which daylight exposure impacts office workers is remarkable,” said study co-author Ivy Cheung, a Neuroscience doctoral candidate at Northwestern University. “Day-shift office workers’ quality of life and sleep may be improved via emphasis on light exposure and lighting levels in current offices as well as in the design of future offices,” said Cheung.

Ivy Cheung and her colleagues at Northwestern conclude,

“the architectural design of office environments should take into consideration how natural daylight exposure may contribute to employee wellness.”


Room with a view

IHURER PhD researcher Kathryn Gilchrist discusses some of the findings from her ESRC-funded research on the value of workplace greenspace for employee health and wellbeing.  She says:

“Many people value having a view of nature at work, but does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

International evidence suggests that it does. Nature in window views has been empirically linked to various outcomes such as higher job satisfaction, reduced absenteeism, higher productivity, lower stress levels and greater ability to cope with stress at work, and more positive social interactions between colleagues as well as greater overall mental wellbeing. This is thought to occur as a result of nature’s influence in promoting psychological restoration from states of stress and mental fatigue.”


Kathryn goes on to say “Although greater visual access to vegetation features appears to promote employee wellbeing, seeing built features like buildings and car parking doesn’t seem to have a commensurate negative effect. In other words, it seems to be the presence of nature in workplace window views that’s the important factor here, not the absence of built forms. This points to a great potential for sensitive planning and landscape design to promote wellbeing in built environments like knowledge-sector business sites where high demands on attention can mean opportunities for psychological restoration are particularly valuable.

Another study by the Heschong Mahone Group conducted in a call centre in California found that workers who had a view of outdoor vegetation performed six to seven percent faster on call handling time than those in cubicles with no views or with views of buildings.


Keep it curvy

An environment with curved lines – think shapely desks and circular tables – is linked with positive emotions, which aid creativity and productivity. Sitting in circles at meetings, desks or during lunch, promotes the development of a collective mindset, bringing teams closer together.

Despite all the reassurance of angular shapes, research shows that we have a predisposition to round forms and curved spaces. We rate curvy, rounded environments as more beautiful and rounded spaces trigger more activity in the brain regions associated with reward and aesthetic appreciation.


Paul Dare of Okta Interior Design says, “Round shapes are fluid and have no beginning or end, suggesting completeness. They have free movement and are comforting, protecting what’s within them, providing a sense of restriction but also safety, unity and community. They inspire feelings of tenderness, friendship, care and support”.

Paul goes on to say,

“The key, across an entire interior office design, is to create the right mix of spaces and therefore the right mix of shapes. It’s amidst the angular environments where circular spaces can really stand out and be used to signal a change in expected behaviour – collaboration, conversation, team work and creativity”.


Go green

Having plants in the office has been shown by a number of studies to reduce stress levels, help workers recover after demanding tasks, and reduce pollutants.

The Fjeld et al study in Norway suggests that the benefits of plants are not limited to physical health, but also include psychological well being. This supposition is reinforced by 20 years of research in psychology and public health.

Whether contact with vegetation is active (gardening) or passive (viewing vegetation through a window), results show a consistent pattern of effects that are diminished when plants are absent. Research, summarized in Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life (Kellert, Heewagen and Mador,2003) shows that people in spaces with vegetation compared to those lacking vegetation are more likely to experience the following outcomes:

  • Psychological and physiological stress reduction

  • More positively toned moods

  • Increased ability to re-focus attention

  • Mental restoration and reduced mental fatigue

  • Improved performance on cognitive tasks

  • Reduced pain perceptions in health care settings


A 1989 study assessed the use of plants to remove formaldehyde and zylene from the air in test chamber studies. This research was prompted by an EPA study that found high levels of these chemicals in newly constructed office buildings in the 1990’s. The chemicals are commonly found in building materials and furnishings.

The researchers found that plants were effective in continuously removing the chemicals from the air in the test chambers. Both the plant leaves and the micro-organisms in the soil contributed to the improved air quality.

A more recent study in 2004, also conducted in a test chamber, found that plants removed airborne doses of benzene within 24 hours. Both the leaves and soil microorganisms proved effective in removal of the chemical from the air. The authors concluded that “the findings demonstrate the capacity of the potted plant microcosm to contribute to cleaner indoor air and to lay the foundation for the development of the plant system as a complementary biofiltration system.”


Promote collaboration

In an article by Harvard Business Review dated May 2016, the 7 Factors of great office design are identified and discussed  Their conclusion was to focus on the following 7 factors:

Furthermore, they wrote the following:

“To illustrate how projects can begin with a statement like, “we need more collaborative space” and conclude with a much deeper story about how people work the way they do, and why.



To begin the discussion in your organisation, in addition to analysing the seven attributes with your employees, HBR suggests that company leaders should also ask themselves the following questions:

  • Who are our employees, and who will they be in the next 5 years?

  • Who else uses our space (visitors, clients, community members, etc.), and why?

  • How do we want clients, prospective hires, or other visitors to perceive us when they enter our space?

  • To what extent do we value flexibility and choice over how work gets done?

  • Are certain modes of working seen as a privilege only available to a select few?

  • What current workplace behaviors would we like to change?

  • What are the most satisfying attributes of the existing workplace that sustain productivity?

  • If people aren’t regularly coming to the office, do we understand why not?


“The design and outfitting of workspace is a major capital investment for any organisation that can affect a number of business outcomes, including productivity, employee satisfaction, engagement, talent recruitment, and brand impact. Given the myriad ways to design and plan a space, leaders should approach workplace design in a strategic way. Imitating the latest fads start-ups are adopting won’t necessarily get you the results your company desires; asking the right questions – and, above all, listening to employees’ answers – will.”


Copyright © 2018 by Natalie du Preez.

This article was researched and compiled by Natalie du Preez, which is property of the author, all rights reserved. This article or any portion thereof may not be copied, shared or reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the owner.

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