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Psychology of Space: The Smell and Feel of Your Workplace


By Megan McAuliffe 

How often do you think about space - that is, the space within your immediate environment?

Imagine for a moment that you live amongst trees. How would you feel? Would the sounds of the rushing leaves and the woody scents help you feel relaxed? What about how you see your surroundings, would the soft light filtering through the trees help put you into a moment of quiet contemplation. Your heartbeat would probably slow down considerably and your blood pressure would drop, as a sense of wonder and peace enveloped your senses.

Now think about your work environment. How does it make you feel? Do you feel challenged by the space around you, does it limit you or enable you? Does what you see, smell and feel help you relax and stay alert, or does it make your mind wander off into a wakeful dream-state?

The spaces we occupy shape who we are

Every minute of our lives is spent in physical dialogue with the space around us. The spaces we occupy directly influence our psychological well-being and creative performance. Space has the ability to shape who we are and how we behave. And, the fact that many of us spend large amounts of time, even years, working in the same space, it makes sense to optimize that space for maximum benefit.

Psychologists such as Kurt Lewin and Egon Brunswik conducted extensive work in the field of environmental psychology - which is the study of the relationship between the environment and its inhabitants. Brunswik found that psychology should give as much attention to the properties of the organism’s environment as it does to the organism itself. Overall, their studies highlighted the importance of incorporating psychology into the design of space and how, by manipulating space, one can control an environment and up to a point, its inhabitants.

Increasingly, urban planners, designers and business owners are tapping into the knowledge that a large part of how we define ourselves is caught up in the relationship we have with the places we occupy and the way in which we inhabit them. Actually, space has so much influence on the way we live that it can literally empower or disempower us.

Recently, Google released its plans for a new London headquarters, set to open in 2016, which will occupy a space of one million square feet and house an outdoor swimming pool, a full-length indoor football field, a climbing wall and a roof garden -- showing that the search engine giant takes its spaces seriously.

Googlers will have all their recreation needs met at work. They’ll be able to ride their bicycles into the building’s bike storage room, take a shower in the on-site facilities and ride around the building on micro-scooters. There will also be plenty of wide open space to use for networking and collaborating with others, in addition to the open-plan desk space to work autonomously.

The new Google space will provide more flexibility and room for relaxation and enjoyment -- a way to create contented and happy employees who will perform better and stick with the company longer.

Creating a cultural hearth drives connection

A study by architectural historian Charles Rice, "The Emergence of the Interior," found there was great importance in the understanding and implementation of interior design psychology on the performance, efficiency and well-being of an individual. 

His belief is that we are missing out on the experience of connection in our fast-paced society, largely due to the high speed at which information is being hurled at us. In his work, he found that if we can address this lack of connection by creating a relationship with our environment, we can significantly improve our overall well-being.

Through his studies, Rice found that if we improve our relationship with the space we occupy and the objects within it, we can embody a sense of connection by creating a mythical fireplace, and the traditional experience of storytelling.

Urban designer Richard Wolfstrome uses this same philosophy when working with architects and local planners to design spaces in the urban community. With a narrative in mind, he unlocks historical stories and looks at the way people work, play and interact with the environment:

“We are human beings who have a capacity to emotionally connect to our landscapes. One of the best ways to do this is through story. Just like the indigenous cultures have done throughout time. Western society is starting to relate to this connection. Our ancestors are speaking to us in a way. It’s in our DNA. There is still a strong part of us that wants to sit around the fire and tell stories. And be a part of that hearth.”

Connection with space increases productivity

A study conducted by Dr. Craig Knight - which surveyed more than 2,000 office workers by looking at attitudes to a working space and how that directly affected productivity - found that most business offices have a model focused on "lean" functionality with little control by its occupants.

The University of Exeter’s School of Psychology study revealed that if employees are involved in the design and layout of a workspace, they are not only happier and healthier, but are 32 percent more productive:

“When people feel uncomfortable in their surroundings they are less engaged - not only with the space but also with what they do in it. If they can have some control, that all changes and people report being happier at work, identifying more with their employer, and are more efficient when doing their jobs.”

The bonds that tie us to our environment

David Ward , CEO of VW Heritage on the south coast of England, has boosted his company’s growth by creating an inclusive and ethical culture from the grassroots. The company’s staff retention levels are high, and they display a rare kind of loyalty to the business:
“Customers are important, but staff are even more important. It’s all about creating a good culture. If our staff are happy, then they are performing at their best, which in turn will offer the best possible experience for our customers.”

Ward intuitively knows that by including staff in the vision for the future they can be part of the success of the company. They also understand that their role is contributing to the company’s final goal.
“Our staff spend so much time at work, it’s important they feel involved in the environment they occupy rather than separate from it. An environment needs to enable and encourage a person’s productivity.”

Even though there is no universal checklist on how to attain "good company culture" and business profit, there is no doubt that a little shapeshifting in the office environment can lead to happier staff and higher levels of productivity. Let’s face it, when we’re feeling good, that’s when everything else in life flows.

Image credit: Julien Gong Min

Megan McAuliffe is a writer at www.vwheritage.com. She explores ethical business, sustainable living and culture. You can find her on Twitter @MeganEditorial. 

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