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One Overlooked Office Design Trick Could Make You Happier at Work

Office spaces can boost mental health — if they’re designed right.

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The most recent results of the American Psychological Association’s Work and Well-being Survey reveal some interesting — and refreshing — trends: Nearly 71 percent of workers report their employers cared more about their mental health at the time of polling than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Well-being emerged as a priority for workers in general, with 81 percent of respondents saying they will prioritize organizations that support mental health the next time they apply for a new job.

But just because employees want mental health support at work doesn’t mean their workplace meets the need. For example, when asked what would alleviate stress at work, respondents to a 2021 McKinsey survey said flexible schedules and hybrid work arrangements would help. Yet some companies want workers back in the office — as of February 2023, about half of American office spaces are filled for the first time since 2020.

Certainly, flexible hybrid work can help people be happier and more focused, says Matthias Mehl, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. But other aspects of work can be adjusted to support mental health, especially one fundamental component: The actual workplace.

“The take-home message here is to provide lots of choices, and individualized spaces, so that individuals can choose what works best for them.”

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Mehl is the senior author of a new paper that examines the relationship between personality type and workspace preference. It’s an argument for letting employee personality differences shape office design, as well as a serious acknowledgment of the ability of workplaces to influence focus and happiness. These elements, in turn, affect career satisfaction and performance.

We know that people have different personalities, but we don’t consider these differences when creating workspaces that benefit all, Mehl says. But if we want to remake work in a way that nurtures health and wellness, maybe we should.

It’s better to provide many different kinds of office spaces — spaces that support different work styles and personalities — than continue to “build one-size-fits-all office spaces that don’t fit anyone really well,” explains co-author Esther Sternberg, research director for the University of Arizona's Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine and director of the university’s Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance.

“The take-home message here is to provide lots of choices, and individualized spaces, so that individuals can choose what works best for them,” Sternberg says.

Why personality in the workplace matters for mental health

An office building in Paris, France.

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Ultimately, the study found that extroverted people are happier and more focused in offices with open seating arrangements. Meanwhile, introverted people and people who worry more prefer private offices. These results are in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Comparatively, other traits, like agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness, did not matter as much for how people did in different spaces.

This research was part of a larger research project called Wellbuilt for Wellbeing, funded by the United States General Services Administration (GSA), which manages and supports federal agencies. The overall aim is to identify the environmental features of office spaces that best support physical and emotional health.

The results of this study stem from data gathered from 270 office workers. These study participants wore wearable health-tracking devices and answered questionnaires about how they felt via smartphone. As a result, the researchers could link aspects of health and well-being, like mood and focus, to aspects of their work environment.

Earlier studies have also confirmed what many office workers know to be true: that workstation design can influence our ability to focus and be productive. Workstation types can include private offices, cubicles, and open-plan offices.

Mehl says that even if extroverted people enjoy open-office plans and worriers can focus better in private offices, we can all benefit from some mix-n-match. An extrovert sometimes needs to withdraw socially, and a calm person may need the shielding of a cubicle to concentrate.

“Ultimately, I think, it’s to a large extent about providing a range of workspace options and degrees of freedom,” he says.

How to make offices that support mental health

Employees at Electronic Arts.

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The reality of an office is that it will contain people with different personality types. However, this does not mean that bosses should ask people to take a personality test and use those results to assign them a workstation. That would be the wrong takeaway, Mehl explains.

Instead, he says we need to:

  • Create workplaces that cater to different needs
  • Give people the freedom to use these spaces flexibly

Sternberg says the Wellbuilt for Wellbeing study has also yielded ways offices can be tweaked to support mental health. For example, a sound level of about 50 decibels is seemingly the best for reducing stress. (This is about the sound of a very quiet dishwasher.) There’s also optimal light: bright full spectrum sunlight from 8 am to 12 pm and redder light in the afternoon and evening.

The option to work remotely can also help with stress, Mehl says. Which may be great news for you — and less so for your boss.

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