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Workplace Design: An Environmental Psychology Perspective

British Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant

Workplace Design: An Environmental Psychology Perspective

When discussing a psychological standpoint with regard to a specific topic, it can be easy to overcomplicate matters with a wide array of theories, terminology that only those ‘in the know’ will understand and delve in too deep….the combination of which may turn you, my valued reader, away from my blog and to somewhere else that is a little easier to understand and to make sense of without having to read it numerous times over! Therefore, I’m going to tackle what some view as a complex topic in a way that makes it easy to absorb, understand and, perhaps most importantly, apply.

The three primary areas I will focus on within this article are: Motivation, Personality and Evolutionary Psychology, and how they relate to workplace design from a psychological perspective.

Motivation Theory

Let’s begin by taking a look at a nice, bright image.

The above image represents Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model.

What does the image show?

Through this model, Maslow suggests that there are several levels of human needs that must be satisfied before progressing to the next level up. The levels at the bottom of the pyramid are concerned with basic needs, such as safety, security and health. In contrast, levels higher up the pyramid are concerned with things such as esteem, respect, social belonging and recognition. In short, the higher levels are related to well-being, with the lower levels relating to health and wellness.

The takeaway point? We, as humans, can only perform at our highest level and to maximum potential when we have ‘ticked all boxes’, i.e. attained all levels exemplified in the pyramid.

How does this relate to work and environmental psychology?

To discuss this, we must look at some data from the Leesman Index – an independent office survey that “allows organisations to assess how well their workplaces are supporting employees, benchmarked against the Leesman Index, the world’s largest independent database on workplace effectiveness”.

Research carried out by the Leesman index found that only a fraction over 50% of over 200,000 employees felt their company supported their productivity, which is a very, very poor stat indeed.

If we delve a little deeper into the data provided by the Leesman Index, it becomes apparent that the most basic of workplace hygiene and environmental elements, i.e. air and noise quality, and temperature have the lowest satisfaction scores, yet are, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, are the most critical factors.

Baffling isn’t it?

The takeaway point here is that before contemplating more extravagant workplace design features such as colour schemes, social areas, funky furniture etc., i.e. the things the workplace design industry tends to place a lot of emphasis on, focus on ensuring the basic design requirements are met first.

Personality Theory

Although every single person on this planet is different, we can typically group them into two groups: introverts and extroverts – both of which are equally as important as the other.

But where does this fit into the topic of workplace design?

Well, given that workplace design today tends to be designed and constructed with the extrovert in mind, it is crucial to focus on creating a workplace that is beneficial for all, be they introverts or extroverts.

Let’s take a look at the differences between the two within the business and workplace arena:

Introverts: Largely favour their own company, take longer thinking about and mulling things over, have a preference for greater amounts of detail, and will typically not speak out during meetings (although that doesn’t mean they’re not listening!).

Extroverts: Can be described as ‘social animals’ that take risks, seek thrills, love ‘big’ ideas and will often speak ‘off the cuff’.

It has been suggested that the difference between introverts and extroverts is down to natural levels of arousal, which is an essential factor where workplace design is concerned given that when our state of arousal is at its optimal levels, we perform at our best. If under-stimulated, performance will decrease, and fatigue may set in; if over-stimulated, performance also decreases, and stress levels may also rise – perfectly demonstrated by the image below:

How do natural levels of arousal differ between introverts and extroverts?

Introverts: Typically have naturally high levels of arousal; therefore, require a calmer environment for peak performance.

Extroverts: Commonly have naturally low levels of arousal; therefore, seek stimulation to perform at optimal levels.

But it is it not only personality type that is important – the task being performed is equally so. Complex tasks are typically more stimulating, whereas monotonous tasks generally reduce levels of stimulation; therefore, introverts tackling complex tasks need a calming environment to boost performance, whereas extroverts performing simple tasks will require a stimulating environment.

This leads to one obvious challenge: How do you design a workplace to accommodate all personality types?

Although this may seem like an arduous task, the best way to tackle it is to profile the team/department and create a workspace that suits the dominant personality type. We know that certain personality types are drawn to specific jobs; therefore, it is possible to create performance-optimising environments based on this. For example, extroverted sales and marketing employees will require a more stimulating environment than introverted analysts or researchers. However, it is essential to remember that the former will still require a ‘chill out’ area and the latter a place for meetings and interaction.

Evolutionary Psychology

Where does the evolution of human physiology fit into all of this?

It’s safe to say that our brains (and the cognitive processes that occur within them) have evolved over many thousands of years. The issue, however, is that humans evolved to survived on the African plains – not in a modern office, which we have only been working in circa one hundred years. Therefore, the human brain is still lagging and more-likely-than-not still entrenched in and hardwired to outdoor environments.

How is this relevant to workplace design?

Two words: biophilic workplace. The evolutionary psychologist Stephen Kaplan has been a proponent of such workplaces since the 1990s, and his work has shown that natural environments enhance the ability to concentrate and feel refreshed, as well as being less taxing – and there is further research that backs this up. A survey of well over 7,000 employees found that biophilic environments increase creativity and well-being by 15%. Furthermore, a study conducted by Kansas University discovered that lateral thinking performance was boosted by 50% after subjects spent four to six days in the American wilderness.

Takeaway point: There is a wealth of research-based and psychological evidence that suggests nature and the outdoors play a hugely positive role where employee performance and well-being is concerned.

An Environmental Psychology Perspective of Workplace Design: A Summary

After combining all of the above evidence, it is evident that there a hierarchy of design needs in the workplace. At the very least, a work environment should provide shelter, sanitation and nutrition. Beyond that, tools, equipment and facilities are required to complete every day working tasks. The combination of this should manifest itself as a safe, secure and healthy workplace.

Furthermore, workplaces should also take into consideration our evolutionary, biophilic and social needs, alongside room for contemplation, privacy, focus and concentration. These facets, coupled with freedom, trust and empowerment, will help to facilitate (and ultimately maintain) optimal and maximal work performance.

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