The Building and the Brain: Managing Psychological Needs Through Office Design

There are many ways that bad office design can affect us psychologically: from lowering performance levels, to increasing boredom, even to triggering apathy and a sense of removal.

In light of ground-breaking, on-going research, there are many factors to consider when designing an office, all of which can help to improve psychological needs in a positive way.

A well-designed, thought out workplace is a powerful and effective tool for supporting and improving employee performance. By managing psychological needs through successful office design, it is possible to enhance health and wellbeing, as well as motivation and productivity.

All office interior design and workplace structure should aim to support psychological needs, and improve creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Related Article: Health, Happiness and Office Design

The Building and the Brain

It will come as no surprise to many people that productivity and the workplace aesthetic are related. Judith Heerwagen, a former scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who is now a program expert with the General Services Administration, displays this relationship as the following:

  • “A building can positively affect ability by providing comfortable ambient conditions, by enabling individual control and adjustment of conditions, and by reducing health and safety risks. Negative impacts on ability to do work are associated with conditions that are uncomfortable, distracting, hazardous or noxious.”
  • “A building can positively affect motivation by providing conditions that promote positive affective functioning, psychological engagement and personal control. Moods create the ‘affective context’ for thought processes and behaviors and are directly tied to motivation.”
  • “A building can affect opportunity by providing equitable access to conditions that reduce health and safety risks, equitable access to amenities and compensatory design options where inequities exist and are difficult to eliminate entirely.”

Office Space

Combining ability, motivation and opportunity results in performance. In order to reach the desired combination of all three factors, certain design elements should be considered.

Essential Design Considerations

There are certain design considerations that should be taken into account with office redesign, refurbishment or relocation. These will have profound effects on psychological needs, and see an improvement in productivity, enjoyment and motivation.

Thermal comfort and temperature

Being the right temperature is a vital need for employees. Too cold or too warm can be a distraction with physiological effects, such as feeling tired or lethargic. To ensure an office’s temperature is ideal, there needs to be a perfect combination of humidity, airflow and temperature. In the workplace, design ideas like under floor heating, individual temperature controls and operable windows will help to target this need.

Related Article: Define and Design: 8 Desk Ideas for Your Home Office

Access to Nature, Views and Daylight

Psychologically, humans want to be surrounded by nature: it provides continuous sensory stimulation, change and variation, meaning all five senses are on high alert—ensuring motivation and performance remain at peak levels. In the office, maximise natural light penetration: lots of windows and glass, rather than opaque walls, are key.

Shared spaces should be given priority on any enjoyable, serene or relaxing views—rather than giving these views to the top offices. Outdoor areas should be provided, where employees can leave the confines of the office, even if it’s just for a small break.

Hack of the Day - the colour greenvia Business.com Hack of the Day


Stating that different colours have different connotations is not a new idea: we have instinctive reactions to colours like red and green. However, it should be noted that other colours have subconscious effects on the human mind, which can be used effectively in office spaces.

Bright colours are associated with high focus, while blue is calming, creative and promotes mental control. Pink heightens emotional connections and reduces aggression and irritation. Yellow boosts clarity and decision making, while orange creates enthusiasm.

Noise Control

Noise is a very subjective and fraught subject in workplaces. Some people are motivated and spurred on through music, discussion and background noises, while others need total silence. Many psychological studies have pointed to control being a factor in noise irritation – people are less likely to be annoyed by noises that they have control over.

Employees should be given the ability to control noise through access to different rooms and volumes. In the workplace, aim to create separate areas: keep energetic and noisy spaces away from calm, silent spaces. The provision of headsets will also have a profound effect, as will organising people in the office depending on their preferential way of working.


Being crowded leads to high levels of stress, which in turn reflects badly on their satisfaction in the workplace. Perceiving space and being crowded greatly differs according to culture, personality, gender and country. 

When implementing office interior design techniques, aim to position desks or work spaces in such a way that reduces the amount of dense space. Provide lots of views out of windows, and large windows at that, to increase the perception of space and light.

Related Article: Myers-Briggs & Office Design: How to Satisfy The Needs of Different Personalities

Managing Needs in the Workplace

Employees will need a range of varying spaces depending on their personalities. Extroverts will need busy, collaborative spaces while introverts may prefer smaller, quieter areas. People should be offered a choice of where to work: somewhere stimulating and busy, or discreet and contemplative.

Social interaction should be encouraged while respecting privacy and maintaining personal space. This should be done so that people can interact and ensure that this psychological need is met without creating distractions.

Psychological needs can be managed through office design. By paying attention to this and striving to ensure optimum conditions for all employees, productivity and performance can be improved.

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