How Office Design Can Help Your Team Work Better

We spoke with Morgan Thomas, an interior designer at Cutler, about office design and how to make the most effective use of your space.

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We spoke with Morgan Thomas, an interior designer at Cutler, about office design and how to make the most effective use of your space.

Your environment plays a major role in how happy and healthy your team is. In a recent study, researchers found that only 13% of workers are highly engaged and satisfied with their workplace. It's an alarming statistic — after all, if the vast majority of your workforce is feeling unsatisfied in their surroundings, that’s not good for their overall well-being or for the company's.

So, can your office be used as a tool to boost employee engagement? According to Morgan Thomas, an interior designer at the commercial interior design firm Cutler, answer is yes.

"Our behaviors are really driven, when we’re in a space, by what’s happening in the space," says Morgan.

We reached out to Morgan to discuss office design and how your environment can impact the way that your team works. In the interview, Morgan suggests a few things that you can do to make a big difference and create a more positive atmosphere. Listen to the latest episode of "Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast" below to hear directly from Morgan, or keep reading for an overview of our discussion.

How Your Environment Can Inform Productivity 

It’s a simple fact: our surroundings impact our behaviors. It's all to do with a basic human instinct to be innately aware of our environment. So, it makes sense that, in order to be effective at work, your office should be a place that encourages things like productivity, communication, collaboration, and relaxation. Color, personal workstations, and accessories like furniture are just a few elements that can make an impact.

"Both aesthetic and function are important in office design,” Morgan says. “People spend a large portion of their time at work and people work in all different kinds of ways, and there are generally many different types of people, different departments, different work flows that happen, all within one office. You really have to create a space that can support all those styles and functions throughout the day, while also enhancing the culture and ultimately being a space that people enjoy spending time in."


The Science Behind Color 

Studies have shown that human beings have an emotional response to color. That response can be subjective, but colors also have universal significance: the way color affects us correlates to how those colors behave in nature. Blue, for example, is almost always related to blue skies, which tends to remind us of being a carefree child.

In the same way, colors can also influence our performance and the way in which we work. Certain shades can make us feel more relaxed and focused, while others can even contribute to creating a stressful environment.

"There’s been lots of studies on the psychology of color and how different colors make us feel, and even how color affects our productivity," Morgan says. "It is important to generally know what you’re trying to achieve with the color and then how to pick one based on your goals."

You can start by determining what kind of workplace you're in: is it high stress? Task oriented? A more creative space? Active? Figure out what your specific needs are and then choose what color will suit you best.

Here is a brief overview of popular colors for offices and their accompanying qualities:

  • Blue

Blue is known for being a calming and spirit-lifting hue. For employees, this can alleviate stress and, in turn, help with concentration and focus. 

  • Yellow

Most often associated with positive emotions like happiness and excitement, yellow can encourage creativity and innovative ideas.

  • Red

Red is known to increase heart rate and produce a rise in blood pressure. The bold color can be useful for employees in high energy environments or those engaged in physical activity.

  • White

Many studies have shown that white can generate a sterile and clinical feeling, which can actually hinder productivity. Scientifically speaking, it's seen as one of the least favorable colors for offices, even though it’s the most commonly used one.

  • Green

Like blue, shades of green can have a calming effect on the mind. Its soothing qualities are believed to be due to the color's close association with nature.

After you decide on a color that’s appropriate for your office, there are many ways to introduce it, aside from just repainting the entire space. You can:

  • Create a statement wall that’s painted one single color
  • Paint different departments different colors according to their purpose
  • Hang up colorful artwork on the walls
  • Add a brightly colored pillow to your communal couch

Morgan adds, "One strategy for approaching color is using a neutral foundational palette and then really bringing in color through items that can be easily changed over time to add freshness and to make sure that the space really does stand the test of time. Things like furniture and communal areas, for example, are great opportunities for a little bit more of an adventurous palette."

Effective Personal Workstations 

Your desk or personal workstation isn't just a piece of furniture — it's a tool that directly affects your productivity in every way from ergonomics to physical structural design. Some important things to keep in mind when it comes to your workstation include:

  • The Type of Work You Do – Are you making important phone calls? Is your role highly collaborative? Do you need more than one monitor? The right workstation for you will depend on your specific needs.

  • An Ergonomic Chair – Consider comfort and support, especially if you’re going to be spending long hours sitting in one spot. An ill-fitting chair can contribute to anxiety and long-term back problems.

  • Good Lighting – Studies have shown that an abundance of natural light can help alleviate stress and fatigue. Try positioning your station near a window if possible; if not, adjust the brightness of your computer monitor.

  • Storage Space – Ensure that you have enough room for storage so that you can avoid clutter and keep all your documents organized. Things like trays, filing systems, and boxes are helpful.
  • Keyboard and Monitor Position – Avoid eye and wrist strain by positioning your keyboard in a natural position and your computer monitor at eye level.

  • Décor – Little touches of home, like photos of loved ones, can instantly make your workstation feel more comfortable. Indoor plants can also improve air quality and overall atmosphere.

 

The Cubicle Debate

What about the physical structure of your workstations? Multi-person work benches or more informal lounge seating in open concept layouts are quickly becoming popular in offices, but traditional cubicles are still a common format despite their increasingly bad reputation. So, which can help you work better? Morgan offers some pros and cons to the cubicle debate:

Pros of Cubicles:                                         Cons of Cubicles:

- Visual privacy                            Inefficient use of space

- Acoustic privacy                         - More isolating for employees

Either way, Morgan says that acoustics and privacy are two of the most important overall elements of office design. "Not taking these into account can lead into a really distracting environment that causes stress and low productivity, so it’s important to keep things like acoustic separations. And it doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of walls — we can apply acoustic materials to ceilings, even things like using carpet can be really helpful in an office space. Even acoustic partitions between work-spaces that are just a foot or two high in between desks, so that it’s really cutting down on acoustics and blocking the most distracting things happening, while also making the space feel open enough that people can actually interact and engage with each other."

Accessories to Increase Engagement 

Sometimes, the smallest details can make the biggest difference. When it comes to office design, accessories that you wouldn't expect to directly impact your atmosphere can be the very things that do — especially when integrated in a specific way. Morgan suggests a few add-ons that can significantly contribute to a more productive and engaging work-space: 

  • Furniture - It's easily interchangeable, and can make a big impact while keeping things fresh and exciting. You can also get ergonomic furniture that serve a functional purpose and also look good while doing it. "Office furniture has really come a long way, even from just a few years ago, and the right pieces can make employees feel quite at home," Morgan says. "They’re actually supporting people in their tasks, making them more productive, they can stay at their desks longer, and really feel comfortable throughout the day."

  • Communal Spaces - "If you design communal spaces properly, it can actually add to the productive square footage of your office," Morgan explains. "You know, they can kind of become impromptu meeting spaces and areas where people can go to work in a more quiet setting on their own or even collaborate together."

  • Photocopy Machine - Put this essential piece of office equipment in a communal area. It will encourage employees to get up and stretch their legs, and it can also turn the location into an interactive communal space of sorts. Just try to be considerate of your colleagues and make sure that it's in a place where it's okay to make some noise.

You can tune into Morgan's interview above or download the episode by subscribing to our podcast, "Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast," on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. See below for the full transcription of the episode. 

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Learn More About How Office Design Can Help Your Team Work Better 

Check out 50 Ways to Improve Your Office Environment for more expert advice on how to create a positive and productive work-space. For further support in regards to employee engagement, just reach out to one of our Employee Engagement Consultants. 

Get In Touch


 

Yasmine Shemesh (YS): Hi everyone and welcome to Outback Team Building & Training tips — a monthly audio resource for HR and business professionals. This podcast is produced by Outback Team Building & Training , a leading team building, training and consulting provider for organizations across North America. I’m your host, Yasmine Shemesh, and this month I’m joined by special guest Morgan Thomas who is an Interior Designer at Cutler — a commercial interior design firm that’s based in Vancouver and does projects all across Canada. We gave Morgan a call to talk about all things office design and she was just so knowledgeable and had some really fantastic insight on the subject. We had a great chat and we’re excited to share it with you here, I think you’ll really enjoy it. So, without further ado, here is our interview with Morgan!

YS: Thank you so much again for joining me today Morgan, and for taking the time to chat with us.

Morgan Thomas (MT): Thanks so much for having me.

YS: So, how’s your day going so far?

MT: It’s good. It’s early so nothing to complain about and the sun is out and shining, so it’s always a good start of the day.

YS: Good way to start, for sure. Alright, so our topic that we’re going be speaking about this month is office design. But before we really jump in, let’s start out with our quick tip of the month. So, every month we begin our episodes with a quick tip for our listeners: what is one really simple thing that somebody could do just to improve the overall atmosphere around the office at work?

MT: Sure, that’s a great setup for a quick tip. One of the simplest and most cost-effective improvements that can make a really big impact, actually, is fresh paint. So, it might sound really simple, and it might just be a matter of replacing a dated color for something fresh, or there can even be some patterns or murals involved that really express the company culture and the brand.

YS: I mean, something as simple as color can make such a huge impact.

MT: Absolutely.

YS: It can totally transform the feel of a room. Thank you for sharing that. Alright, so let’s get started. How long have you been working in the design world?

MT: I have been working in the design world for about nine years now, that’s when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. Since then I’ve been out in the real world, but I think design has always kind of been a part of my life.

YS: That’s great. What continues to inspire you about design?

MT: Well, what got me interested initially and what I continue to enjoy about it is genuinely how much fun it is — which maybe sounds like an easy answer, but it really is great. I get to be creative every day, I get to work with all kinds of other really creative people, there’s always a new puzzle to solve, and there’s nothing quite like that feeling of seeing happy clients in their new space that was really developed specifically for them.

YS: Can you tell me a little bit more about the company and what you guys are all about?

MT: Absolutely. So, Cutler is a commercial interior design architectural firm. We’re based right here in Vancouver and we started in 2010 and worked primarily on retail projects. But then, some of our clients in retail actually asked us to design some of their other spaces, such as offices, and since then we’ve organically grown to encompass all kinds of other structures in the commercial, improvement world such as office, fitness, restaurant, and medical spaces, as well our original foundation in retail.

This retail foundation actually taught us the importance of brand and the customer experience, so now our multi-faceted team — which includes all kinds of individuals with all kinds of background such as interior design, architecture, project management, graphic design and branding — really has this forte in curating a unique environment and aesthetic towards each and every company based on that brand and customer experience.

YS: That’s fantastic. Yeah, you guys do some beautiful, beautiful work.

MT: Thank you so much! We’re actually bursting at the seams at our Gastown office right now. One of the big projects that’s going on in our office is actually designing our own new office, just a few blocks away.

YS: That’s exciting!

MT: Yeah, it’s really exciting and it’s been a great learning experience to genuinely be in the client’s shoes and to collaborate with our team as both designers and the client.

YS: Yes, and I know that you guys have done work for some pretty big names like Samsung, Nespresso, and I read that a recent client of yours, Boardwalk Optometry, recently received the Interior Designers Institute of British Columbia Shine Award of Excellence and one of your designers, Tiina Vahtola was chosen as Designer of the Year; so, wanted give you congratulations on that!

MT: Thank you so much! Yeah, we’re so excited and honored to really have our work recognized and just absolutely thrilled that Tiina is being celebrated by our community. We found out about the Award for Excellence first, which we were obviously excited about and then to find out about Tiina being honored with just the biggest, biggest thing that’s happened to us all year, probably. And we already knew that we had a gem in Tiina, but it’s really great that the rest of the world knows.

YS: That’s really great. So, now, going back to office design, in what ways does office design differ from other kinds of design, especially when it comes to things like aesthetic versus function?

MT: Well, both aesthetic and function are important in office design, but, what separates it from some other kinds of commercial design is that there are generally more layers of function than some other spaces. People spend a large portion of their time at work and people work in all different kinds of ways, and there are generally many different types of people, different departments, different work flows that happen, all within one office. So maybe something different from office to retail, let’s say for example, is, retail generally got two, maybe three, different people and experiences that you’re trying to tailor to. In offices, that’s multiplied. So, you really have to create a space that can support all those styles and functions throughout the day, while also enhancing the culture and ultimately being a space that people enjoy spending time in.

YS: Yeah, absolutely, and like you said, too, obviously not all businesses have the same kind of needs for their office.

MT: Absolutely, yeah. Everybody works in different ways, some clients have offices that are actually customer facing, so then you also have to incorporate that aspect of it too, and make a great first impression every time you walk into the door. Other clients have offices where it’s really just their own and so, maybe they want to feel a little bit more like their own home.

YS: One concept that’s always interested me about office design and the way that people work differently in different spaces is if employee purpose can be driven by design. Because our surroundings, especially when we’re at work and we’re in this space that we’re spending such a large portion of our lives in, and our surroundings impact our lives so directly and impact, in a larger sense, our behavior. So, can a work-space be used as an engagement tool, in that sense?

MT: Absolutely. That’s a great point that you made: our behaviors are really driven, when we’re in a space, by what’s happening in the space. If you want people to sit in a space, you put chairs, and if you want people to meet in a space, you put a big table in a gathering area. And there’s tools, such as different types of pathways, that you can use throughout an office, different types of circulations to actually drive things like engagement.

Because we have these big, open work stations, what we find is that there’s so many more opportunities to create other flexible spaces throughout an office, and to create these moments for interaction and collaboration. One way that we’re trying maximize that is, if there is an office space that has multiple floors, sometimes trying to put an actual interconnected staircase between those two floors, versus having everyone always take the elevator, has been a really great opportunity for engagement and interaction because people have that physical connection between the two spaces. Often you meet on the stairs, around the stairs, kind of organically bump into each other, which actually ends up being very productive in the long run with the whole team.

YS: On that note, too, how does architecture contribute to how we function at work?

MT: Yeah, I would say that architecture and interior design very much go hand in hand. The exterior of the building and the overall structure can really dictate things like the amount of natural light and fundamental adjacency, for example, plumbing for kitchens and washrooms, or the physical core of the building, if it’s an office tower, where the elevators are located, the staircases, etc. But, a lot of architecture overlaps with interior design as well as other related field such as mechanical and electrical engineering and we really collaborate with that whole team throughout the process and most commercial design projects are really a collaborative effort of all different types of skills.

YS: So now, what are your thoughts on cubicles? Because I’ve read a lot of articles recently that are very much against that sort of “old model” of work stations because it closes you off and it maybe doesn’t promote productivity, so a lot of newer office spaces that are being designed or sort of eschewing that and going more towards an open concept. So, what are your thoughts on that?

MT: Yeah, that’s a great question and a very hot topic. There are definitely some pros and cons to cubicles. I would say the biggest pro is privacy, both visual and acoustic. The cons include inefficient use of space, so, you know, when you give one individual that much square footage, all of a sudden you can’t fit in as many people, which is kind of a downside. And then, also, like you mentioned, the isolation factor that happens with cubicles. While that visual and acoustic privacy is great, we’re seeing that there’s more strategic ways to create that privacy and in just the right increment, so that people can be productive without feeling like in their own little world.

YS: Yeah, and like we were saying, everybody works differently, so you just have to find that balance that works for your specific needs.

MT: Absolutely, and with today’s flexibility and minding how people work, the biggest benefit of physically being in the office is actually being able to work with the people that are there. Being able to find that great balance and giving people that flexibility to work how and when and where they may do it, is a big part of that.

YS: For sure. What other kinds of elements of design are important to keep in mind when it comes to things like productivity and managing stress levels?

MT: Well, actually, the topic on cubicles is really good intro to that. Acoustics and visual privacy are actually two of the most important elements that come to mind. Not taking these into account can lead into a really distracting environment that causes stress and low productivity, so it’s really important to keep things like acoustic separations. And it doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of walls — we can apply acoustic materials to ceilings, even things like using carpet can be really helpful in an office space. Even acoustic partitions between work-spaces that are just a foot or two high in between desks, so that it’s really cutting down on acoustics and blocking the most distracting things happening, while also making the space feel open enough that people can actually interact and engage with each other.

YS: That’s very cool. And what about colors? You mentioned right in the very beginning of our chat here about adding color or a different pattern on the walls. I’ve read a lot about blues and greens that promote calmness and that some fiery colors like oranges or red can be more antagonizing. So, how much does color really affect that whole atmosphere in the office?

MT: There’s been lots of studies on the psychology of color and how different colors make us feel and even how color affects our productivity. It is important to generally know what you’re trying to achieve with the color and then how to pick one based on your goals. So, for example, yellow tones have been shown to increase productivity, but as I’m sure you can imagine, using a lot of yellow can be a little overwhelming and if you’re using the wrong shade of yellow, it can actually create more tension and stress. And then blues and greens are generally more calming. I would say that neutrals, in general, tend to be less distracting but too many neutrals can ultimately create sort of a dull environment.

One strategy for approaching color is using a neutral foundational palette, and then really bringing in color through items that can be easily changed over time to add freshness and to make sure that the space really does stand the test of time. Things like furniture and communal areas, for example, are great opportunities for a little bit more of an adventurous palette.

YS: Yeah, it’s those little details that make such a big difference.

MT: Yeah, definitely. Even things like — we mentioned carpet a little bit — but there’s carpet that generally has a neutral palette, but then there’s a few colors dripping through it or a nice undertone that can really help to bring out other colors throughout the space.

YS: Yeah, absolutely. So now, again, we touched on this really briefly in our quick tip of the month at the beginning of our podcast, but I wanted to dive in just a little bit deeper on this as well. If a business does want improve their surroundings but they can’t really afford something like a full on renovation, what are a few little things that they could do that can still make that big impact?

MT: Yeah, I think this is a great topic and we see a lot of clients that they’ve been in their space for a long time and they really just want to make sure that their team is constantly being engaged and excited to come to work and giving these little changes to the environment can have a big impact.

So, paint is still my favorite. It goes a long way and, like what we talked about, colors can have such a big impact. Another one I would say is furniture because it’s generally very easy to replace and can make a big impact. Office furniture in general, if you haven’t renovated your office in a long time, it might sound not quite as fun as some other options but office furniture has really come a long way, even from just a few years ago, and the right pieces can make employees feel quite at home. And even simple things like desk chairs and more functional pieces of furniture that are really comfortable and supportive all day, they’re actually supporting people in their tasks, making them more productive, they can stay at their desks longer, and really feel comfortable throughout the day.

A couple of others are lighting and communal areas. Particularly if you’re in an older office, lighting can have enormous impact. The right color temperature and output can create a much more comfortable and productive environment. And LED fixtures, again, have come a really long way and can even lead to really big savings in operational expenses because they use so much less power than more traditional fixtures. And then communal areas — if you can only go out to one area of the office to refresh, I recommend picking a space that will add a lot of value to the entire team, not just a couple of individuals. It really just helps to build that team spirit and, you know, great things always come out of collaboration.

YS: Yeah, for sure, that’s also a great place — if you have a space where people want to sit and relax in and enjoy spending a time — it can be a great way to also just refresh your focus and recharge, which is just beneficial in so many other aspects of your work life.

MT: Absolutely. And if you design communal spaces properly, it can actually add to the productive square footage of your office. You know, they can kind of become impromptu meeting spaces and areas where people can go to work in a more quiet setting on their own or even collaborate together.

YS: So, now, aside from client requests, where do you draw inspiration from for your projects?

MT: That’s a good question. Well, generally I would say my sources and probably a lot of our team’s sources of inspiration vary, but the client’s brand and culture is always our source of inspiration for each project. I think it’s really our starting point whenever when we’re starting something new. We do what we call a Discovery Session where we do a deep dive into their brand, their operations, their culture, how they use their current space, what are they looking for in their new space, for their renovated space, and that really dictates a lot of what the look and feel of the space ends up being. And then I would say it’s really about creating a space that is well suited for the actual people and so that’s why it’s so important to understand who the people are.

And then I think, personally, things like walking and exploring are probably my biggest sources. I love discovering new places, interior and exterior, meeting new creative people and their processes and how they work, their skills. Things like furniture makers and understanding all the detail going to something so much smaller than a big space actually ends up informing a lot of what we can create in the entire environment. And then just really analyzing how I, and other people, feel and behave in different types of spaces, I think, is great to design new spaces that create the end results that we’re after.

YS: Yeah, I find you can find inspiration sometimes in just the most unexpected places. Like, you know, when you go for a walk and something catches your eye; or if you watch an old film or something.

MT: Yes, absolutely.

YS: That’s wonderful. So now, before we wrap up, are there any more final thoughts that you’d like to share with our listeners?

MT: Well, Tiina might not know that I’m sharing Tiina’s Tips, but, I thought I would share some small bits of information and tips that I’ve learned from Tiina over the years.

YS: Oh, great!

MT: Our very own designer of the year. And some things that she helped me to keep in mind, which is really during office design projects. For the first one, kind of small but can actually make a big impact — so, one of the complaints that we hear about from clients in their offices in the kitchen area is that often times the sink can just become filled up with dirty dishes even when there’s a dishwasher. And so one of the things Tiina taught me was, if you don’t want a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, just give them a very small sink that can’t hold very many dishes.

YS: Good point!

MT: If they have to always move the dishes to the dishwasher and then even doing some things like dishwasher drawers so they can always have one dishwasher drawer that’s clean and one that’s dirty, so there’s never an excuse to not put something directly on the dishwasher.

YS: That’s brilliant!

MT: Little Tiina Tips, right? It’s a thing!

YS: It’s so true though!

MT: Another one that’s kind of similar, a little thing that makes big difference, is putting the copier in the communal area so that people can stretch their legs throughout the day and [it] kind of becomes an interactive communal space. We talk about stand up desks and making sure that people aren’t sitting for too long, so, creating these things where people have to get up and stretch their legs might sound like a little bit of an annoyance at first but after putting it into practice, people really enjoy it and appreciate that quick little break.

And then I would say the biggest thing that I’ve seen Tiina do in spaces that really just makes such a big difference is she’s not afraid to incorporate some quirky items into the space and really figure out how to tell that story of the company and the people, which, I think, really goes a long way in helping them express who they are to other people, but also feeling like the space that they’re in is really their own. There’s not a better opportunity to really show that team spirit and that brand identity than the actual, physical office environment.

YS: Well, thank you for sharing those tips. And thank you to Tiina for those amazing tips as well! And thank you again for joining me today Morgan, it was really lovely chatting with you and thank you for sharing your wonderful insight.

MT: Yeah, thank you so much for having me and inviting the Cutler crew to provide a little bit of advise on office design.

YS: That’s it for this episode of Outback Team Building & Training Tips. Outback Team Building & Training helps organizations across North America build relationships through memorable team building, training and consulting experiences, and our team has been recommended by over 14,000 corporate groups in the United States and Canada. For more tips and expert advice on how to improve the atmosphere around your office, visit the downloadable resources section of our website at outbackteambuilding.com to download your free copy of 50 Easy Ways to Improve Your Office Environment, and don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you may listen to your podcast. Until next time! Thank you for listening.