When it comes to outfitting a new office, or expanding or redesigning, most business owners are focused on the basics…how many desks and chairs do I need and how can I configure them to fit all our people? It’s understandable – running a business is expensive, and rent is certainly a big line item in the budget. There is often a desire to make do with a smaller office or to outstay your current space, and to throw some Ikea desks together and cram everyone in and call it “an edgy open concept workspace.” The problem? Chances are your employees are going to feel crowded and distracted, and discomfort and distraction leads to a decline in productivity.

A well-designed and thoughtful workspace can increase employee productivity and engagement.

But what are the elements of an ideal workspace? Is there a perfect design or roadmap to follow? I wish I could say yes; however, there is no ‘one size fits all’ for any office – each work environment has its own unique aspects and drivers that can be harnessed to foster productivity and success. That being said, there are some key elements that can serve as a starting point for any space.


Lighting is critical to promoting a healthy and productive work environment. When designing or laying out your office space, consider the placement of offices and workstations in proximity to natural light. Workstations should be banked perpendicular to windows to allow light to penetrate as far into the office as possible and windowless offices or cubicles should ideally be avoided. Recent studies are demonstrating that people with access to natural daylight sleep better, are sick less, have improved moods, less stress and are more creative.

Light temperature and diffusion are critical. Try to select an energy-efficient LED fixture that offers a warm spectrum of light and an acceptable level of lumens at the work surface (you could consult a lighting designer or electrical engineer to determine what will work best for your space and desired outcome).

Controllability of lighting levels is key when it comes to creating different types of effective work environments. Staff who spend time working at computer screens can benefit from dimming capability, while collaborative meeting spaces might be best made bright and airy.

Air Quality + Temperature

We all know what it feels like when the temperature in the office gets too high… it can leave everyone feeling sluggish and unmotivated. The same goes for a space that has too little fresh oxygen or poor air circulation.

Older buildings tend to be the biggest culprits for this. The impact to your staff of poor air quality can be in lost productivity, but, more concerning, also in higher absenteeism due to illness.

It’s important when looking for a space to ensure that the building systems are in good working order and that you will have control over your office air temperature. An ideal office is one in which there are multiple zones that allow for control over the temperature. While there isn’t an ideal temperature that pleases everyone, most studies indicate that the optimum working temperature is approximately 22°C (71.5F). The key to keeping employees happy with the thermal conditions of their workspace is giving them some control over their environment, or providing them with the ability to move from one zone to another depending on how they feel or the type of work they are doing. While air quality issues are harder to resolve by retrofit, they are possible, and creative solutions can be found that can offer some improvement.

Acoustics + Privacy

Distractions…they are the productivity killers of any office. There has been a significant increase in the popularity of open space office plans in recent years, with many companies going this route to increase collaboration and workflow among team members. The trouble is, while some workers may feel very energized in a noisy and busy environment, many employees find high volumes and constant interaction exhausting, distracting, and stressful. It’s important to be mindful that some people find the ringing of phones, talking of co-workers, and the creaking of the door down the hall completely aggravating, and each one of these distractions may send them off course time and time again all day.

So how can you give everyone what they need and eliminate distractions? One solution is to organize people by workstyle instead of by department. Creating space for people who like quiet in an area well-insulated from noise, and seating those who crave more stimuli together in a more collaborative zone can certainly help to eliminate a lot of friction and keep people motivated and on task. Another solution is to do away with assigned desks altogether, and create activity zones within your office - zones for quiet work, zones for complete privacy, and zones for collaboration - then give people the ability to move from one to another based on the type of work they are doing or how they are feeling. If neither of these is an option, then consider giving people the flexibility to work from home when they need to focus on tasks that require no interruption, investing in some noise-cancelling headphones for those who find noise difficult to manage, or designating a small meeting room for quiet work. And don’t forget to WD-40 that creaking door!

Furniture Comfort

Employees spend a huge part of their lives at work and they should feel comfortable and at ease. If a worker can’t stand their office chair and dreads coming to work every day to sit in it for 8 hours, leaving with a headache and a sore back every night, how frequently will they call in sick compared to someone who is comfortable all day? While a limited budget is often given as an excuse for not being able to afford a comfortable chair, how much money will you spend on your business if absenteeism or turnover is high? There are many great furniture options on the market to suit any budget, so outfitting your staff with the right pieces they need to feel comfortable is possible. Remember, it’s not one size fits all. Every individual is different so while one chair might be perfect for John, it might not be ideal for Sally. Look for options that are highly customizable, and ask the furniture reps to train your team on how to get the most out of your pieces.


Most people think of branding as adding your logo to the walls and decorating your office in company colours. While that certainly is a great way to achieve a certain level of brand alignment, it’s not going to lead to higher workplace engagement or productivity. What’s most effective is to dive a bit deeper and focus on how your space interacts with people on an almost subconscious level. Because this true alignment is more a feeling than an aesthetic measurement, it can be the hardest element to achieve. Success starts with defining your culture and values, and then weaving aspects of this into your workspace. For some companies this can be as simple as adorning the walls with meaningful language that is specific or inspirational to that business – or perhaps it’s the use of a mascot or a sense of humour throughout the space. For companies with deep-rooted values around sustainability and the environment, this can be demonstrated through clean and natural design materials, a robust paperless policy and a paper-free office, composting programs, and walls decorated with wisdom on the impact (or lack of impact) this group is having on the planet.

Decisions around meaningful brand alignment are very individual and unique to every company. Your best resource to help you define how best to reflect your culture in your space: Your people. Canvass your staff to find out what they think defines your company culture and brand: run a contest, host an afternoon brainstorming session, find creative ways to get your team involved. The more committed your team is to the process of defining how to represent your culture throughout your office, the more deeply rooted and motivating the end result will be.

It can be daunting to undertake the design of an office space. If you are able to afford help, it is highly recommended. A good consultant can help you weigh the pros and cons of certain design elements and recommend how to get the most impact for your budget. The most important thing is to keep in mind who you are designing the space for and what they need. By giving your employees a voice in the process, listening to their individual needs, and offering them more flexibility and control over their workspace, you will enable a more engaged and productive workforce.

Crystal Roche.png

Crystal is a Principal at Project House Business Solutions, just like Heidi Eaves, who told you how to build employee culture a few pages back. Crystal is an expert, creative project manager, with more than a decade managing and delivering high-level project management functions, ranging from marketing, to construction, to corporate events, and anything that needs creativity matched with function. She’s also bold and brassy, which makes us like her even more.