Getting a better handle on the psychology of office design

It was the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa who described the door handle as ‘the handshake of the building’ in his book The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Buildings greet us in other ways too and we respond to those greetings in very human ways. So much so, in fact, that when we make decisions about the ways in which offices introduce themselves, we should take account of the psychological factors that can mean the difference between a successful or failed office design. For a start, first impressions count. According to researchers at the University of Ottawa, people make decisions about websites within a 20th of a second. That seems hasty, but the good news is that we take our time when we first meet other people. We make our mind up about them in one 10th of a second according to psychologists at Princeton. People also make similar snap decisions about a company based on its office design and especially its reception.

frank-gehry-valli-and-valli-door-pull-k365-sinistroThis is not only about how their arrival is managed by reception staff but also about the physical environment. One of the most common issues I see is with the provision of reception seating. There may be an assumption that two-seater sofas work well in a reception. The problem is that people treat two-seater sofas as a single seat, so if a client provides two of them, they will only seat four people. A better solution would be to provide 4 single chairs or even two three-seater sofas, which two people will happily use.

This behaviour is not confined to offices. Men using urinals will tend to leave an empty urinal between themselves and a neighbour (a fact that has been the subject of a deal of academic research as you can see here). People in empty restaurants will rarely choose tables adjacent to other diners. We don’t expect passengers on trains to sit on the seat next to us if an empty pair of seats is available.

Any deviation from these codes of behaviour will make people uncomfortable or stressed. The issue of personal space even has its own label in psychology. It is called proxemics and it allows us accurately measure the point at which the proximity of our fellow humans becomes an issue. The father of proxemics was cultural researcher Edward T Hall, who claimed that people typically have up to three zones of comfort. These are dependent on the level of intimacy with the other person, and are classified as ‘intimate’, ‘personal’, ‘social’ and ‘public’. The one generally employed at work is social and is measurable at between 1.2m and 3.5m.

The impact of invasion of personal space in any situation is a real one. It has potentially very negative consequences, not least of which is an increase in anxiety levels. So any design, fit-out or the provision of reception furniture must focus on the way people will normally react to them.

It is very important to make people feel comfortable when they arrive in an office. And that means making them feel psychologically as well as physically comfortable, including by not suggesting they take a seat when that would mean cosying up to a complete stranger on a two-seater chair.

Images: main – Vitra Citizen Office; above – Frank Gehry designed door handle for Valli & Valli


Paul Goodchild is the Design Director of Fresh Workspace.