When Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s first headquarters, he tackled the project with the same exacting attention to detail he did everything else. He obsessed over the color of every brick and the shape of every cold-rolled, bead-blasted steel beam.
Under Jobs’ leadership, Pixar’s headquarters evolved into an undeniably beautiful workspace—but its impact goes much further than just looks. He knew that the office would dictate the experience his employees had and, therefore, the quality of the work they produced.
Consider what’s probably the most functional room in any office: the bathroom. Jobs insisted Pixar would have just a single set of bathrooms located in the central atrium. This lone, central location would encourage people to mingle and meet, and promote “encounters and unplanned collaborations”—something he knew was essential to great work.
But not everyone bought into Jobs’ vision—some even told him he was crazy. But as soon as Pixar’s teams moved in, they realized just how effective his creation was “Steve’s theory worked from day one,” John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, recalled in Jobs’ biography. “I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”
Most companies don’t have the budget to build an office from scratch like Jobs did—but we can still learn a lot from what he did. Our physical work environments have a huge impact on our wellbeing, and a happy workforce is integral to a productive and successful business.
Creating a supportive workplace is even more challenging given the rise of working from home, especially in the time of COVID-19. Companies previously had to design one workspace for their employees. Now they have to design an individual space for each remote worker.
Here are 10 ways you can immediately improve your workplace, whether that’s a central headquarters like Pixar or a scattering of home offices.
1. Create designated shared spaces
Many workplaces today feature an open-plan design, but that doesn’t mean teams don’t still require shared spaces. In fact, one major criticism of the open-plan concept is that it tends to stifle collaboration and creativity, because it discourages teams from gathering together as a group. In fact, employees in open-plan offices spend 73% less time talking face-to-face, preferring to use email.
One solution is to copy Jobs’ strategy at Pixar and create several dedicated shared spaces that invite employees to sit down, slow down, and exchange ideas. Simply by installing a few large, open-use tables, or converting what was once a rigid conference room into a makeshift breakroom, you can offer your teams a more collaboration-friendly environment that inspires great work.
Shared spaces are important for distributed teams, too. Since you can’t create a dedicated breakout room for your employees to naturally socialize, you need to be intentional and create opportunities for people to interact.
For example, set up a recurring calendar event for a happy hour every Friday. Invite everyone onto a video call, chat through your week’s wins, and head into the weekend on a high. Or arrange virtual coffee breaks between colleagues. Pair up employees at random and ask them to jump on a video call or spend half an hour chatting over coffee. These ideas replicate the chance encounters people have in physical breakout rooms—even when they’re located hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
2. Create quiet spaces
While many people thrive in a stimulating environment, just as many don’t. And nearly all employees require a private, quiet setting at some point––either for practical reasons, like taking a phone call, or to simply allow them to focus on their more complicated tasks.
You can create quiet spaces in a number of ways, depending on your budget. Designating empty rooms or offices as “quiet rooms” is one option that serves the double purpose of helping you repurpose unused space. Other companies adapt their open-concept design with their need for quiet rooms, arranging chairs, couches, and coffee tables into “pods” which are deemed “quiet zones.” To offer an additional layer of privacy, these “zones” could be sectioned off with office dividers, colorful boxes, shelving, or large plants.
You might think that remote working and quiet spaces go hand in hand. In some ways, that’s true. There are far fewer drive-by desk conversations, and unless you’ve got dog’s barking in the background, there’s usually less background noise. But remote workers tend to have a lot of technology-induced interruptions. If your home office is disrupted by a ding, ping, or ring every five minutes, that’s just as bad as a disruptive open-plan office.
To create genuinely quiet spaces for remote workers, encourage people to use statuses and do-not-disturb features on collaboration tools. That way, their colleagues will know they’re doing “head-down” work and won’t expect an immediate response.
3. Get the best furniture you can
Whether you’re in the office or working from home, bad furniture can cause discomfort to your employees, reducing their ability to work. In extreme cases, shoddy chairs and wobbly furniture can even cause serious, long-term health issues, such as neck and back pain. What constitutes the “best” furniture is subjective, though there are a few rules of thumb when it comes to the staples.
For starters, consider the office chair. According to the Mayo Clinic, a good one should support your spinal curves. It should be adjustable so employees can rest their feet flat on the floor with thighs parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, stay away from those armless chairs you see all too often—armrests exist to encourage workers to gently rest their arms and relax their shoulders.
Second, desks should have plenty of clearance for employees’ legs, with the option to adjust the height (even if it requires buying blocks). Companies should also provide their remote workers with home-office best practices, or even provide employees with a small allowance to help offset the cost of creating an ergonomically sound workspace.
4. Improve the lighting
People are like plants—to be at their best, they require sunlight. It’s true—employees without exposure to natural light tend to get less sleep and are less productive during the work day. What’s more, insufficient light in the home has been linked with mental health conditions and accidents. Trying to offset these negative effects of low light levels, especially in the winter, can go a long way to ensuring your workplace is happy, healthy, and productive.
Where it’s simply not possible to maximize natural light, there are a few ways to boost the effectiveness (and reduce the damage) of artificial light. First, try to set up lights so they are indirect, since this will reduce eye strain. Second, choose bulbs that mimic natural light in workspaces. Save the softer, more aesthetically pleasing bulbs for social spaces.
Another way to maximize the benefits of light is to give employees control over light levels in their own space. This can be as simple as supplying desk lamps and can improve overall lighting while greatly empowering employees.
5. Add plants to your workplace
Speaking of plants, it turns out that adding greenery to a workplace or home office can have several significant positive impacts on employees. First, exposure to plants has been shown to further boost an already-positive mood and reduce the effects of a negative one. Second, plants can improve concentration, which, combined with the aforementioned quiet spaces, can go a long way to improving general productivity.
Plants also are a boon to the air quality of any environment, and they’re helpful when it comes to regulating humidity and temperature. In an office setting, this translates into healthier workers, which can help reduce the direct costs associated with healthcare and absenteeism.
Adding plants can be a big improvement for relatively little cost, with many of the most popular plants being inexpensive and easily accessible. Some of the more common choices include snake plants, as they thrive in low light and require very little maintenance, or spider plants, which are known for their rugged nature and versatility.
6. Think about the temperature
Your employees’ overall comfort has a direct and measurable impact on their wellbeing and performance, and the temperature of your office plays a significant role in creating an overall pleasant atmosphere for your team. Most humans are most comfortable and productive in rooms that are set somewhere between 69 and 73 degrees fahrenheit. In other words, your company’s office should be neither too hot, nor too cold.
Make sure that your workplace temperature is properly regulated, keeping it within that optimum range year-round. If you’re looking to take this improvement to the next level, install desk-mounted fans or heaters to allow employees to regulate their own workplace temperature.
A far cheaper and possibly more popular way to allow employees to regulate their own temperature is simply allowing them to wear what they like, rather than setting dress codes.
7. Decorate the walls—tastefully
Artwork can be useful in designing an office, but it goes far beyond simple aesthetics. Art is said to have an enriching effect on a workspace, and helps improve employees’ overall moods, which, of course, results in better work.
According to a study by Dr. Craig Knight, who specializes in the psychology of workplaces, employees in an office with art and plants worked about 15% faster and had fewer health complaints than those in a workplace with neither of those features. What’s more, this figure doubled when employees were able to decide where to place the art and plants themselves.
8) Make physical activity part of your workplace
Worksite wellness takes a number of different forms. It can be the art on your walls, the plants scattered around your office, or the temperature-controlled environment that helps keep your workers comfortable. But what about overall fitness?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggests that companies should incorporate physical fitness into any wellness program as a means of keeping employees healthy, engaged, and productive. A healthy team is not only a more productive team when they’re in the office, healthy employees are also in the office more, because they miss fewer days over the course of a year. This helps reduce the costs associated with absenteeism. According to Circadian, each year, unscheduled absenteeism costs companies more than $3,000 for hourly workers and more than $2,000 for salaried employees.
While most companies may not be able to afford to build an in-office gym, there are other options to pursue. Some companies build gym memberships into their benefits packages, but even that can be pricey. Try organizing a company running group. Schedule an after-hours yoga class once a week. Sponsor local charity runs and walks, and encourage your employees to participate.
For remote workers, exercise can go one of two ways. Some employees embrace being at home and integrate exercise into their daily schedule. They’ll go for a run at lunch or break up the day with a couple of shorter walks. But others pull back and become more sedentary. After all, without a commute to get them up and active, it’s easy to focus on just work.
To get remote employees moving, think about some simple structural changes. Make a couple of your meetings “walking meetings,” or offer subscriptions to online fitness classes.
9. Give employees the space to declutter
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “visual clutter suppresses the brain’s responsiveness.” So while you might not expressly order your employees to clean their desks, you might consider coming up with friendly ways to encourage that they remove—or at least hide— any extra stimuli that might affect their, or a co-worker’s, cognitive function.
The easiest way to do this is to make sure that their personal workspaces include drawers, cabinets, and shelves. A coat room helps keep employees’ outerwear out of sight, and a dedicated mail room with slots for each employee can prevent desks from piling up with the kinds of hard-copy snail mail that no one opens or reads.
As with exercising, employees who work from home get both the good and the bad. While remote employees generally have complete control over their desk, they don’t always have the same amount of free space as office workers. If someone has a small apartment, they may end up working from their kitchen or at a table squeezed into the corner of a room. For these employees, make sure they have everything they need to keep their workspace orderly—shelves, drawers, filing caddies, and so on.
10) Install a suggestions box
No workplace is perfect and managers should always be looking for the next improvement. While you might stumble across the next great workplace tweak in a management publication like Harvard Business Review or McKinsey Quarterly, a much easier research technique is to ask your employees what they want. This could be done electronically, but companies could also consider simply installing a little mailbox, some paper, and some pens for employees to let you know how the office should be changed. It will get you feedback and act as an everyday reminder to employees that you are actively trying to improve the workplace.
For remote workers, suggestion boxes are slightly different. Because each employee’s workspace is different, it’s more helpful to provide a space where they can share tips, tricks, and ideas with their colleagues. That way, people can choose the ideas they want and leave the ones they don’t.
A better experience means better work
There are numerous ways to improve your workplace for your employees, many of which will overlap. These 10 points are a great place to start and can be implemented immediately at almost any office or workspace. The way you construct your workplace for employees is only one aspect of their overall experience, but the impact it has on them can’t be underestimated.
Originally published Jul 30, 2020, updated Jan 16, 2023