The psychology of workplace design and productivity

If you’ve been lucky enough to stroll through Facebook’s Menlo Park campus or Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA, you know that each seems like its own fantastical city, detached from the realities of the one in which it actually exists. And this result is clearly intentional.

These incredible spaces feed into the ever-growing desire of those who aspire to work for these iconic brands. Yet, workspace design has been relevant to both employee productivity and job satisfaction long before the rise of Silicon Valley.

What we know to be true seems so simple: cubicles just don’t work for most people. Traditional offices are dull, cold and claustrophobic, in some cases evoking feelings of depression. In fact, many believe that these environments are a primary reason for longstanding disdain toward the “9 to 5” workday.

Office spaces have existed in some way, shape, or form, since the Pantheon was erected in Rome’s modern business district nearly 2,000 years ago. It was the need for centralized administration and efficiency that brought early workspaces like this one into being. Fast forward to 1964, the first skyscraper was constructed in the United Kingdom using an iron structure that removed the need for walls to support its great height. From there, office walls evolved into magnificent glass boundaries designed to flood workspaces with natural light during the day and reduce employee exposure to artificial light over long periods of time.

There are many factors that have given rise to our obsession with workspace modernization over the past century. Yet, when thinking about modernization in design, we tend to focus only on architectural elements. Yet, in fact, as best-selling author and Forbes contributor Jacob Morgan has studied, there are also technological, cultural, and, of course, physical elements to a workplace that impact a team’s happiness and productivity. These can be advancements in cloud-based technology and resources, employee benefits and incentivization. Or it can be the “coolness” of a company’s office, or the inclusion of recreational space. Regardless of the what, there’s plenty of research to suggest that investing in an engaging and inspirational workplace design is worth the cost.

Workplace design is about more than a floor plan

When we think about 21st century workspace design, it’s Facebook, Google, and other tech giants that are usually top-of-mind. The Gensler’s Workplace Index has repeatedly found that employees who genuinely enjoy the environments that they work in will be more engaged, productive, happy, and even healthier. But while the café’s, ping pong tables, and sleep pods can prove to be a worthwhile strategic investment, it’s important to understand that a physical workspace can include more than these types of tangible assets.

To improve innovation, collaboration, and engagement, Morgan says that the physical workspace should be treated the same as physical appearance. The space itself should give off a great first impression, but often overlooked are the people within the space and the ways in which they interact with one another. Ultimately the space needs to reflect the culture, energy and values that are upheld by its leaders and team members.

For example, throughout their Oakland, CA headquarters, the internet radio streaming company Pandora boasts framed artwork that reflects each employees’ love and passion for music. At Airbnb, new layouts and environmental organization are constantly reconsidered to help employees make positive changes, evolve, and upgrade their thinking and performance.

Workspace design shapes behavior, behavior shapes culture

According to a Deloitte study, “94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success.” As mentioned, the physical space and its assets should be a near direct translation of the company’s culture. Beyond bottom line profitability, a commitment to values, beliefs, behaviors, and practices have long-lasting impact on things like happiness, productivity, and engagement.

The companies that best embody this idea are those with practices and a workplace design rooted in their corporate philosophy. For example, Potamus Trading — a registered broker-dealer that specializes in U.S. Equities — coined its name after the hippopotamus for its resilience and adaptability, comparing its traders to the animal which is considered a “master of its environment.” This philosophy, mirrored by a versatile, bright, and open workspace design, guides their team to complete “heads down, focused work with room for relaxation when it’s all said and done.” The environment is suited perfectly for its for its team, who themselves provided feedback on the design.

Ultimately, workplace design is about defining the environment where people thrive. Align your team’s space with the corporate culture that they have invested in, then listen to them to determine your final approach.

Keep their heads in the cloud

As companies strive to continue improving productivity through workplace design and culture, it becomes even more important to have innovative tools and technology at your disposal. In fact, technology may have the biggest influence on our environments and the way that they’re designed. Budgeting for cutting-edge hardware is a given, but the same considerations should be given to software and enterprise networks. This investment helps automate and streamline processes that are enacted physically and reinforced culturally.

For example, YArooms is a platform that allows employees to book and manage meetings at any location through their app. Platforms like and Skype facilitate near-airtight video conferencing, as well as screen-sharing capabilities. Digital workplace design matters, and it should reinforce productivity and face-to-face collaboration. Stay on top of the latest platforms and resources that might better facilitate your team’s digital environment. And, in turn, your technological investment will allow people to take better control of the way that they work, interact with clients, and relate with each other.

In conclusion

A Google-inspired workplace design isn’t the only way to improve your team’s productivity and job satisfaction. But you do have to be willing to make an investment in your team’s work environment. Workspaces should be designed and sustained not just to keep people visually excited and physically engaged, but to allow them to bring value to the team in the best and most efficient ways possible, the very definition of a thriving workspace.

At times, this might mean doing things that seem unorthodox to a traditional mindset. But even if you have to commission a mural or start religiously reading TechCrunch, know that the improvement of the individual experience has been shown to pay dividends for collective achievement.