Ambient factors in workplace design: How the setting influences our work

Environmental Psychology for a New World of Work


A study conducted by Fraunhofer IAO examines how different ambient factors affect the work environment.

What does it take to design a space that allows people to work creatively, with laser-like focus and a minimum of stress? In a new meta study entitled “Environmental Psychology for a New World of Work”, Fraunhofer IAO has presented a systematic synopsis of the results of various empirical studies that explore the effect and design of spaces in the workplace.

Our working world is becoming more and more malleable. Working on the go or from home is standard practice and indispensable to many companies. 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. These developments give rise to several questions: Will the physical office play any role at all in the future? What qualitative aspects will its design have to fulfil in order to act positively on the performance of office and knowledge workers? The Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO has addressed these questions in “Environmental Psychology for a New World of Work,” a new meta study that serves up some surprising insights about how the importance of the setting is often neglected. This study shows that the support workers need from their physical environment can be narrowed down to three key factors. It has to:

  • promote communication
  • reinforce the individual’s ability to focus and underpin creative processes
  • facilitate relaxation and recovery so people can quickly bounce back from stressful challenges

Settings to foster focus and creativity

The effect of the room

The effect of the room

The study found that lighting, the noise level and the height of the room figure prominently in creative processes. Most people prefer dimmer light for creative activities. The reason for this could be that excessively bright light tends to inhibit the feeling of freedom that fosters creativity. Midlevel noise causes a disconnect in human thought processes that actually encourages abstract thinking and, in turn, creativity. And high ceilings prompt people to think more freely. Ceiling height is not the only environmental factor; temperature also has an effect on inventiveness at work. The study showed that a temperature of around 26° C to 27° C lends itself best to creative tasks. Other aspects of environmental psychology can reinforce a person’s power to concentrate. Whereas high ceilings promote imaginative thought, standard-height and low ceilings enhance the worker’s ability to focus. In these settings, employees are better able to perform concrete and intricate tasks that require a high level of concentration.

The right scent influences our work

Fragrances are key environmental elements that have a powerful impact on well-being, work performance and stress levels. According to the study, a cinnamon-vanilla scent is particularly conducive to creative activities. Citrus scents enhance the ability to focus. A peppermint scent can help ward off fatigue. Explaining how scents can be made to work in the workplace, the author of the study, Yue Pan from Fraunhofer IAO, says, “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.” In contrast to the importance of natural and artificial lighting, the relationship between scents and performance is largely unexplored.

Tomorrow’s working environment – where will the journey take us?

What is tomorrow’s office going to look like? This study makes a strong point that office designers will have to adapt spaces to the individual needs of each employee. Digital technologies can help with that. This study sketches out a picture of what the future could hold in store. 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.