Designing productive spaces in your workplace

Appointing an interior designer to create your commercial office space could deliver more than someone to help you choose the right paint colour: partnering with an experienced professional will mean that you create an efficient, healthy working environment that will stimulate the maximum productivity, while keeping your working teams happy. 

“The basis for this is that the way that people work is changing throughout the world,” says Kirstin Cavanagh, project architect at Paragon Interface, a commercial interior architecture practice in Johannesburg. 

“With the high level of technology that we use to communicate and work, the idea that an employee needs to be positioned at the same desk in the same office day after day is changing — more quickly in some organisations than in others.” 

Cavanagh and Claire Fox Key, a partner at Phase Two Interior Design Studio, say that many of their clients cite Google’s renowned offices as a blueprint for their own office design. “The most important starting point in creating a commercial interior design is to understand your company culture and the face you want to present to your clients,” says Key. 

“While Google’s offices have become somewhat of a benchmark, the Google office culture is unique and creating a Google-type environment may not work for an accounting and auditing firm, for example.” Cavanagh says: “Buzz words and phrases such as ‘agile work space’, ‘palette of places’ and ‘work modes’ are everywhere these days, and at a basic level they relate to the creation of a variety of different types of work environments suited to different activities and people.” 

Simply put, not every company is a Google, but every company needs to provide workspaces that encourage productivity in a positive way that aligns with their culture. Key describes a technology developer client who specified standing boardrooms — meetings rooms with no chairs, where meetings are limited to a maximum of 30 productive minutes, after which everyone leaves with a specific plan of action. Nobody gets too comfortable (so nobody falls asleep!) and everyone is alert enough to be focused on setting a goal before they leave. 

Cavanagh describes a “rage meeting room”, complete with boxing bags hanging from the ceiling and pairs of gloves along the wall, where teams are encouraged to take out their frustrations and brainstorm ideas in a more physical way. Interior design is about so much more than choosing furniture too — it’s often about choosing not to have furniture (or walls), and it’s about observing and anticipating natural traffic flows and making it easy for people to work around them. “Sometimes it’s as simple as making sure that people who need to print a lot are located near to the shared printer,” says Key. 

“No matter how beautiful a space, if it’s impractical or cumbersome for people to work in, they’re going to hate it and in turn be unproductive.” It’s often the most unexpected design elements that cause conflict in a space, which makes it essential to gain buy-in from everyone affected by a change in environment, says Cavanagh. 

“A big problem relates back to the changing work environment, and getting people who had their own private offices used to the idea of sitting in a more open plan situation,” she says. “You have to get buy-in from the majority of people, by having these discussions long before you expect them to move to the new office space, and by emphasising that they will be gaining so much more, like different types of work spaces, rather than losing their office.”

Key adds that “invisible” elements often cause the most friction — things like the location of air-conditioning units and who gets to control the ambient temperature. “Typically, women like a slightly warmer environment, while men prefer a cooler one. We’ve found that the sweet spot is 22°C, but managing desk location in relation to aircon vents is something that the layman doesn’t always think of as part of our remit.” 

The other angle of the Aircon Wars is that there are workers who prefer natural ventilation, while there are others who prefer the regulated temperature offered by air conditioning. “SANS 204, the building regulations that govern energy efficiency, favour natural ventilation too, so while commercial buildings abroad will have sealed windows and nobody will bat an eyelid, in South Africa we are encouraged — both by regulation and preference — to have opening windows. These in turn have to be balanced with safety concerns,” Key adds. While energy efficiency guidelines are certainly encouraging architects to allow for more natural light in commercial spaces, interior designers have changed the way that natural light is shared among workers, and with good reason. 

“We did an experiment with a law firm that had meeting rooms facing outdoors, benefiting from natural light, as well as meeting rooms that had no windows, being illuminated only with artificial light,” says Key. “The meeting rooms that enjoyed natural light were far more popular among the attorneys. We take that learning into the work that we do, and prioritise positions along windows for open plan desk space to encourage productivity, while we position boardrooms towards the interior, using glass partitioning to still give them access to natural light. 

“Corner-with-a-view ego offices are less and less common as corporate structures flatten out and only divisions that require confidentiality, such as human resources and finance, typically still have private offices,” Key says. “C-level execs that have big offices are increasingly including meeting areas into their spaces, adding a level of functionality to spaces that were previously exclusively their private domains.” 

When it comes to colour, there are no fixed rules, according to both professionals, but there are certainly guidelines. “Different people have different preferences for work environments, and the colours of each space should be considered according to the activities to take place there,” says Cavanagh. 

“For example, a quiet room or a focus space could have more muted, calmer tones to encourage concentration, whereas a brainstorm area can be bright and colourful to stimulate creative thinking and discussion.” Key adds that she prefers to work in muted, neutral tones, reserving bright colours for corporate branding or contrasting accents. She breaks this convention, however, in designing corporate canteen spaces, emphasising that these are created specifically to be a visual and emotional break from the regular working environment. 

This sensory break is encouraged in working environments that have policies forbidding eating at desks; not only does this protect electronic equipment, it forces people to take some time away from their desks to pause and refresh. When it comes to noise in the working environment, Key again highlights the importance of understanding how teams work together, to place them logically and efficiently. “It makes no sense to place a call centre or sales team near creatives,” she says. 

“One group is on the phone talking all day, while the others need relative peace and serenity to complete their daily tasks. And expecting workers who need quiet to do their jobs to sit in headphones listening to music all day doesn’t work either — they need to be as comfortable in their space as any other worker.” 

Other interventions to reduce noise pollution include installing white noise or simply planning furniture design to separate teams. Separating teams with pause areas furnished with sound-absorbing soft furnishings is effective, while upholstered wall panels also reduce noise. Acoustic ceilings, designed to absorb noise rather than reflect it, are also effective, and can be painted to complement the rest of the interior design scheme. 

Key says that while there are many detractors of open place space design, including those who cite noise as a negative, this economic approach allows for flexibility and growth in the future. Citing a client who grew from 16 people to 100 employees in three years, she emphasises that an efficient interior design scheme will make it possible, within reason, for you to adapt your space to your company’s changing needs over time, without having to dramatically renovate your space too often, at considerable expense. 

“Apart from designing your space to encourage productivity among your staff, working with an experienced interior designer will make the whole process of moving into your new office space — or rationalising your existing one — a far more efficient and productive process too. 

“An interior designer will help you define the scope of your project, including budgets, timelines and the logistics of scheduling all the involved professionals to make sure you move into a cleverly designed, complete space, rather than into a building site. This includes working with planning and regulatory authorities, to make sure that your space and equipment meet with local standards and accepted norms. 

“They will work closely with you to interpret your business’s brand, and translate that into your physical space, taking the characteristics of your employees, your culture, and your customers, into account.”

This article has been made possibly by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team.

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