The Psychology of Workplace Architecture

When Australian construction and fit out company Schiavello designs a new workplace for a client, one of the first things they do is call in their in-house psychologists.

One of these is the academically distinguished Sarah Zerella, who has moved on from her research in organizational psychology at Deakin University in Melbourne to a role as a consultant in the People and Culture Department at Schiavello.

There, she works with the design team to ensure that the workplace which is created, optimizes the productivity of the organization, making decisions which are driven by rigorous research into employee needs.

“We are psychologists working in the design space, with workplace strategy and change management,” Zerella explained to a panel discussion on “The Future Workplace” in Sydney recently.

“All this starts before the design stage, so we understand client needs, personal preferences and values plus the functional needs, and then build a holistic picture from there.”

This kicks off a process of collecting data through surveys and observational studies, supplemented by interviews and focus groups, which build up a picture of workspace objectives. This then goes into a design flow to suggest change management.

Common Psychology

All organizations are different, but Schiavello has commissioned some wide-ranging research which gives an idea of employee priorities.

A recent study of more than 500 employees across two Australian organizations, for example, asked employees what outcomes they wanted the physical office environment to support.

Number one was collaboration, with privacy coming in at number two and – perhaps counterintuitively – privacy at number three.

So, the task for the Schiavello designers is to produce a workplace which facilitates collaboration and interaction but also allows room for privacy.

Although this may sound contradictory, within the flexible and modern office space, these demands can be met by the design of different spaces and areas.

“These are all functional reasons, people don’t want to sit next to their friends or sit by the window,” said Zeralla.

Other research looked into the reasons why people like to work from home.

For many years this was considered to be primarily due to work-life balance, but Schiavello's research among Australian organizations found that the primary reason people want to work from home is because they feel they are better able to focus on their work there, without interruption and distraction.

“So, does this mean that the current workspace does not have that environment where people can focus?” asked Zerella.

“Is there something people are getting from their home environments which they are just not getting at work? So how can we bring whatever that feeling is, that is allowing them to focus, and bring it into the workplace?”

Planning Collaboration

The research illustrated the great dichotomy of 21st Century work practice: we are collaborating with our colleagues more than we ever have, and yet we still need time and space to concentrate and focus.

According to a 2016 article in January’s Harvard Business Review, the time spent by managers and employees in “collaborative activities” has increased by 50 percent in the past two decades. While authors Rob Cross, Rebe Rebele and Adam Grant find much to applaud, their article – “Collaborative Overload” – questioned whether the collaboration wave had gone too far.

At some organizations, they say, 80 percent of employees’ time is spent on the phone or in meetings. Performance is suffering as workers "are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources or attendance at a meeting."

From their research into more than 300 organizations, the authors said the pressure to collaborate is creating "lopsided" outcomes in the workplace. Up to 35 percent of "value-added" contributions come from 3 to 5 percent of employees, they said. The best collaborators are drawn into more and more projects and then become “bottlenecks” holding up progress.

Going Deep

The perils of valuing collaboration above all else are put bluntly in computer scientist Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport wanted to encourage the “deep work” he said made us better at what we did and delivered real fulfillment, and he wanted organizations to focus more on a deep work ethic.

He said people are finding it increasingly difficult to achieve deep work in the office maelstrom of collaborative excess and the "frantic blur of email and social media," which continually undermine focus.

For companies like Schiavello, the challenge is to create workplace environments which deliver on our desire and need to collaborate but can also foster the deep work we need to do. It’s a big ask but employing the psychologists as part of multi-disciplinary teams is a positive start.