Overview: Studies have demonstrated that your physical environment can stimulate, or hinder, productivity and innovation. Factors that have been considered include overall location, temperature, noise level, amount of daylight, air quality, lines of sight, and the presence of other life, such as plants or pets.
Productivity, Innovation, And Work
Any discussion of productivity and innovation needs to begin with a reminder that we only have so much to give in a day. We can focus between four to five hours a day, before our mental resources give out. Even with the best tools and intentions, there’s a limit.
Environment has also become a pressing issue as digital changes ripple through the economy. We’ll be working in more diverse spaces than ever, including our own homes.
When developing a more innovative workplace, we should keep those limits in mind. While changes to your environment can help you focus, get more done, and think more creatively, all of these approaches have limits. Taking breaks, setting schedules and deadlines, and sticking to them are key to both better work and better mental health.
So with that in mind, here are some approaches to consider with your environment to bring out your innovative side.
1. Overall Location
Shifting your overall location a few times a day, such as to a coffee shop for less demanding work or to a different room in your office or home, has been shown to deliver the novelty our brains need. Changing settings forces your brain to shift gears temporarily, alleviates boredom associated with being in the same place for long periods of time, and hands you new, simple problems to fix, such as how to get to the coffee shop in the first place.
It also forces a change in routine. You’ve likely noticed that your setting can tend to drive your actions. Shifting that routine can move you away from distractions. You might also pick different settings for different tasks, such as an office with a closed-door for meetings. Another option is to create flex spaces in the office to make it easier to run into people, have impromptu meetings or brainstorming sessions, or otherwise break up the workday into more manageable chunks.
While the effects of sitting for long periods of time are controversial, it’s generally agreed that you should shift body position approximately once an hour. This is good for the body, of course, but also the mind. Posture has been found to help with certain mental tasks.
Shifting from sitting to standing, or sitting with feet on the floor to feet resting on a stool, also shakes things up for a brief moment. Giving your mind an easily solvable problem can break it out of boredom and let you return to a task a bit more refreshed.
While arguments about the office air conditioning will likely never end, a study from Cornell University points out that warmer spaces are better for productivity. It found that colder workers made more mistakes, while warmer ones saw higher output and a 44% decline in errors.
Why? Some theorize that physiological reactions to cold are to blame. But it seems more likely cold temperatures are just a distraction that detracts from our work as we try to manage it.
4. Noise Level
What you hear at work is dependent on taste as much as anything else. Yet evidence points towards something playing in the background as important to getting more done. Music can help you stay on task and limit boredom, while natural sounds such as birdsong boost mood.
The caveat, of course, is that everyone’s taste and audio needs are different. If you’re on the phone at work regularly, for example, you may prefer a quieter space, while people engaging in deep focus may need a driving beat to help keep them on pace. Fortunately, headphones and personal audio systems can help keep the peace.
5. Daylight Exposure
We all need a certain amount of daylight built into our day. In fact, one study found that daylight had surprising indirect impacts on work, with team members getting more sleep, becoming more active, and reporting a generally higher quality of life. It’s also part of the reason morning exercise is so effective at improving focus throughout the day.
Probably the most critical aspect of this is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be constant exposure. Daylight exposure should be paired with other productivity-boosting approaches, such as changing locations. Taking meetings or attending education sessions outside, taking walks on meal breaks, and moving to a spot near a window are good places to start.
6. Air Quality
Stale and polluted air, including higher carbon dioxide concentrations and higher amounts of particulate matter, have been found to detract from the workplace. While this may sound more relevant to industrial workplaces and those near major highways, indoor office parks and other places have similar issues.
Improving ventilation, overall, will help, although in office areas the flow of air should be designed by a specialist in environmental air quality. Home offices should have fans, air filters, and open windows, where appropriate.
The psychology of color is well known at this point, although we keep finding surprising new evidence about how the colors around us can influence us. Strangely enough, though, this can also affect our work in ways we don’t realize. White walls, for example, were tied to a drop in work output and quality.
Some of this is just simple boredom, of course. Yet, there are also psychological associations. Various shades of white are associated with blandness, for example, which may help dampen motivation for tasks. Gray is the most de-energizing color, for the record.
8. Presence Of Plants And Animals
Pets and houseplants can have surprising effects on mood. Friendly animals make us friendlier. Houseplants help to reduce stress. All of this has a knock-on effect on productivity and work, reducing stress and relaxing people. It’s widely seen as one of the benefits of working from home, in terms of productivity, especially if you don’t have to worry about who’s walking the dog.
In other spaces, plants are more popular for allergen reasons, but some offices are instituting doggy daycares or similar services so that people can recharge with their furry friends.
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