Walk into the Career Services, Co-operative Education and Community Employment Services office at Fanshawe College in London and say hello to Poseidon, a red betta fish in a clear vase at reception.
“We’re the only ones in the college with a fish,” boasts Sarah Ruttan, student services specialist. There’s more: ferns on every filing cabinet, a “wall of thankfulness” where staff post what they are grateful for and holiday decorations everywhere in the 20-person office.
Ruttan’s cubicle features an origami bird hanging from the ceiling, a Wonder Woman doll and floral fabric she’s stapled to her walls. “Students come in here. We want to make them comfortable,” says Ruttan.
These decorations are also making this team more productive. It was once assumed that clutter distracted people, and that open office spaces with minimalist designs allowed people to focus on collaboration. New studies reveal that open office space is actually making people less productive and less happy. According to an Exeter University study, open offices reduce productivity by 15%.
People who spend their work days in dynamic, decorated spaces, though, like their jobs more, and get more done. “The happier you are, the better your well-being. The more productive you are,” says Craig Knight, a U.K.-based psychologist who studies workplaces and how design impacts employees.
Busy place, busy mind
“There is no other animal on the planet that thrives in a lean space,” says Knight. “We like things around.” Plants seem to inspire us to hunker down. A study Knight completed in 2014 found that plants in an otherwise minimalist workplace can increase productivity by 15%.
Also, working while bathed in sunlight, compared to artificial light, was linked to a better mood, more alertness and better well-being, in a Swiss 2015 study. Another study by the same authors found people are less sleepy and less likely to make mistakes in the evening after spending the day in natural light.
The more flexibility we have to choose a space of our liking, the happier we are.
A pretty-looking office is not enough. “We have found no value in high design,” says Knight. A 2010 study he conducted found the most productive workers were those in spaces that they gussied up themselves. People were the least efficient in un-decorated spaces. If someone else came in and replaced their personal decor, their work suffered. Knight says workspaces are impacted heavily by “identity realization,” if you can see yourself in the space around you, you’re just happier.
The big picture
The overall layout of workspaces impacts how much we can cram into the day and those who work in the right layout for their work are the happiest. “There’s no such thing as one size fits all,” says Knight.
Those who make calls of a sensitive nature or who require heavy concentration need privacy. Those who collaborate thrive in open offices with plenty of shared spaces such as meeting rooms. It’s best to have both kinds of areas in a space.
Today’s designers are increasingly taking into account this emerging research, but you may need to bring in a plant or hang up a poster on your own. For Ruttan, time spent hanging up silly decorations has paid off. “It’s a happier and more engaging place to be,” she says about her office. “It’s certainly made us a team.”