Dr. Nicole Tschierske

The Impact of Physical Environment at Work

Where would you rather do your work? Would you prefer an old, almost broken-down lab or perhaps a new high-end facility? Or do you think you’d work better in an individual or small team office or an open space with the noise level of a busy road? In which environment do you think you’d do your best work? 

Someone once described the environment where they worked to me. I remember them saying it was a temporary building where it was so cold in winter that they had to wear jackets. And in the summers it was so hot they were almost in bathing suits. The windows didn’t close so they had books from the library propped against them. I’m willing to bet this doesn’t sound at all like the type of working environment you’d want for yourself and your team! 

So looking at where you and your team work, in what way do you think the physical environment affects your performance, job satisfaction, motivation, and stress?

Ergonomics and how it impacts us

One way in which the physical environment affects the way people work is ergonomics. Overall, the aim of ergonomics is to protect employees “from long-term muscular or nerve injury due to poor bodily positioning or muscle use.” (Vischer, 2007).

Ergonomics includes the following:

  • Lighting and daylight. We tend to experience more comfort and better productivity where we have large windows that we sit close to, where we can see out the window, or where we can choose whether to close the blinds. This is because good lighting helps us do our tasks better. But also, we may find that type of environment more aesthetically pleasing. 
  • Noise and noise control. Noise is a “primary source of discomfort and reduced productivity” (Vischer, 2007). Sadly, any effort of the organisation to cancel out noise by absorbent materials or other structural changes is rendered ineffective if they squeeze in more people or merge areas for collaboration and individual work. 
  • Office furniture and layout. This point relates to how our workstations are designed. Are the desks big enough? Are our chairs ergonomic? Can we easily access the material we need to do our work? This can impact both the satisfaction and the performance of teams. And then, of course, there’s also the debate about whether we should sit people in open spaces or allow for more private, enclosed spaces. Research suggests that people prefer the latter as more privacy also translates to higher psychological comfort.

How does our comfort impact the way we work?

As with any job demand, the physical environment becomes stressful when it gets in the way of getting our work done. Examples of this include:

  • We can’t concentrate because it’s too loud.
  • We can hardly see the numbers on our screen because of the blinding light.
  • Our back hurts from sitting in a crouched position all day.

When we have to deal with these factors over a long time and at a high intensity (i.e. louder noise, brighter light, or more uncomfortable position), they deplete our energy. So it’s not simply a matter of feeling frustrated about a situation and feeling less and less motivated as the days go by.

This is also about a lot more than health and safety. It’s about comfort, and the way we feel can heavily impact both performance and productivity – two outcomes that the company should highly care about.

Physical comfort means that the workplace is meeting our needs for safety, hygiene, and accessibility. This may shock you, but there are places out there where washrooms haven’t been renovated since the 1930s! And those are certainly not offices that meet the basic standards we should all expect.

Functional and psychological comfort 

Once our needs are met, we look for functional comfort. This is where the ergonomics factors above play a role. But comfort also has a third category, which is psychological and “results from feelings of belonging, ownership, and control over the workspace.” (Vischer, 2007)

This leaves us with the following questions:

  • How much attention and energy do you and your team feel you have to allocate to coping with your physical environment at work?
  • And what impact does this have when the attention and energy could otherwise be invested in your work? 

The impact of the physical environment on stress

Where do you think your office sits along the “stress-to-support continuum” (Vischer, 2007)?

Recent research supports the case for being more intentional (and smarter) about the workspace that organisations offer to their employees. For example, how we feel about our workspace and the way it seems to fit us depends on the task we have to do, on the environment itself, and on our personal need for privacy.

If you have someone with a high need for privacy (because they need to complete a highly complex task, for example), asking them to work in an open office environment would be a bad fit. And certainly, these aspects end up influencing our performance and satisfaction with the work environment, Hoendervanger et al (2019).

Distractions are another impacting factor. When they happen, they can be frustrating and energy-depleting. Often, they result in people having to make up for lost time by working late (Appel-Meulenbroek et al, 2020). And they may also be detrimental to collaboration and to increasing stress. This serves to highlight the need for quiet spaces to work, especially in an open office environment (Haapakangas et al, 2018).

Positive environmental factors in the workplace

Having access to nature, on the other hand, is a positive factor. It’s seen to have physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits for employees (Sadick & Kamardeen, 2020).

Working privately and having the ability to communicate efficiently with others is also a bonus. “The ability to work privately with no interruptions and the ability to communicate with the team and leads” seem to be important for Software Engineers, “Program Management, IT Operations, Marketing, and Business Program & Operations” alike. And in a study conducted at Microsoft Offices, Johnson, Zimmermann, & Bird (2019) found “that private offices were linked to higher perceived productivity across all disciplines.”

And finally, zooming in from the overall ‘job demands and resources’ to the ‘environmental demands and resources’, organisations, leaders, and their teams should be encouraged to assess these factors in their workspace and proactively make changes through:

  • “The mitigation of environmental demands (e.g. creating silent working areas).
  •  The enhancement of environmental resources (e.g. placing interior plants within the office)”.
  • And making small adjustments to the workspace and how they navigate it. For example, by introducing flexible working policies (Roskams & Haynes, 2021).

Practical steps to improve the physical environment at work

First of all, if your office or lab building is in despicable shape, start to advocate for renovation. After all, providing basic physical comfort is, at the bare minimum, the decent thing to do. 

Also, check with your team about what ergonomic aspects of their work environment deplete their energy. For example, do you have a budget for standing desks for team members who experience back problems? You may also want to talk about how each of you designed your home office space. Remember to swap best practices or offer advice.

Within the circumstances of your workplace, also explore with your team members how:

  • You can make small changes in the physical surroundings or the team agreements to increase everyone’s feeling of belonging and ownership.
  • Each member of the team can determine how accessible they are to others while obtaining or maintaining some privacy.
  • How people can exercise some control over their workspace. For example, can they independently adjust the height of their desks and chairs? Can they rearrange movable furniture? Can they adjust the light and temperature in the office? 

And finally, come up with team rules or agreements about quiet working time. If you have a shared-desk policy, explain to your team how to use it. Do you get a different seat every day? Or do you have to clear up your space every time you go to a meeting? Does this mean you have to potentially grab a different desk afterwards? Whatever you do, try and reduce novelty and unpredictability, as this helps lower the stress that people experience at work.

So what will you do to improve the physical environment where your team works? 

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​