Jul 28 2020

Environmental psychology: How spaces influence us

What qualities must the design of a space have in order for it to foster creative and focused work with minimum levels of stress? The study “Environmental Psychology for a New World of Work” by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering analysed a variety of empirical studies to answer this question. Study Leader Yue Pan draws on the research to give the furniture industry some tips.

The environment as a success factor: How our setting impacts on our work and lives 

The world of work is becoming increasingly flexible. Working on the go or from home has become essential for many companies and their employees. The researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) are convinced: “More and more people are going to embrace such flexible work arrangements in the future. With good reason: Their positive effect on motivation and performance makes them equally appealing to the organization and its workforce.” Workplace design, both within the company and in the home office, is playing a crucial role in this development.  

Settings that promote focus and creativity 

The study revealed that lighting, noise levels and room height are significant factors in creative processes. The majority of people prefer dimmer lighting when working on creative tasks. One possible explanation for this is that too much bright light tends to stifle the feeling of freedom that lends itself to creativity. Pleasant, subdued light by contrast allows thoughts to flow freely. However, too much silence can inhibit this effect and be an obstacle to creativity.  

The IAO study reveals that mid-level noise produces a disconnect in people’s thinking processes, a kind of productive restlessness that enhances our abstract thinking abilities and hence our creativity. High ceilings are also important in encouraging this quality because they give people a feeling of freedom and expansiveness.

But the room’s height is not the only significant factor; the temperature is also critical. The researchers demonstrated that an observable temperature of 26°C to 27°C is most effective in promoting creative work.  

But there’s a proviso: Concentrated work is different to creative thought processes, and standard-height or even low ceilings are more conducive to it. Employees perform better at highly detailed tasks requiring considerable focus in these kinds of settings. For staff in departments such as financial controlling or accounts, working in small spaces could therefore be beneficial. 

Tip for furniture retailers from Study Leader Yue Pan:  

Furniture showrooms can increase the illumination in their display areas to create a formal, professional atmosphere. By contrast, the lighting in communication areas where sales staff advise customers should be subdued to foster a relaxed atmosphere and a sense of intimacy, and hence inspire trust. 

Scents influence how we work and think 

Fragrances are crucial elements of an environment that significantly influence our well-being, performance at work and levels of stress. The study found that a cinnamon-vanilla scent is a particular boost to creative activities. Citrus scents can be used to promote concentration, while a peppermint scent helps counteract tiredness.

Yue Pan explains how scents can be utilised in the workplace in practice: “Fragrances can be used selectively in an office environment – for example, in individual rooms, the foyer or in a lounge – to distinguish rooms and promote a certain type of performance. However, areas in which employees dwell for longer periods are best kept odorless.”  

Tip for furniture designers from Study Leader Yue Pan:  

Our study shows that wood surfaces have a positive effect on people because they aid relaxation. A generally natural environmental design that incorporates elements of nature has a similar relaxing effect. Designers should therefore create work furniture from materials such as wood, brick, leather and felt that foster a more relaxed and less constrained atmosphere. Interior designers can also add scents to rooms. When integrated into furniture or rooms, pleasant fragrances such as lavender, orange or peppermint put people in a good mood and help them to unwind.  

The study “Environmental Psychology for a New World of Work” is published by the Stuttgart-based Fraunhofer Verlag.

Tomorrow’s work environments  

The study clearly shows that companies will need to adapt environments to their employees’ individual needs alongside integrating digital technologies. The IAO researchers have sketched out a possible future scenario: “A connected ecosystem that links IT tools with workplace and personal sensors could serve to collect data on performance, well-being, stress, job tasks and the prevailing environmental conditions. This data could then be analyzed anonymously for the feedback to be funneled to employees.

In time, this ecosystem could get better acquainted with its users and their individual parameters. It could then recommend or prompt the room’s environmental controls to make adjustments to provide the optimum setting for the tasks and situation at hand.” In an ideal scenario, designers should therefore collaborate with IT specialists on the design of work furniture such as office chairs, desks or shelving so that it can be equipped with modern technologies.  

Tip for the furniture industry from Study Leader Yue Pan: 

Tomorrow’s furniture is linked to how the modern world of work will look in the future – the future world of work is increasingly flexible and agile, and growing numbers of people will work from home or in spaces that they seek out or design themselves.

The furniture industry can benefit from this trend by producing flexible modular furniture designed for adaptable workspaces that are quickly and easily reconfigured for any work situation. We will also see greater demand for healthy and ergonomic home office furniture.

© Fraunhofer-InstitutYue Pan from the Workspace Innovation team at Fraunhofer IAO develops and evaluates work environments for office and knowledge work. 





Author: Christine Sommer-Guist

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