Workplace Strategies that Enhance Human Performance, Health and Wellness

Learn more about how technology is responding to changing workspaces and how they are being used

by Leigh Stringer — Smart organizations are always looking for new ways to improve their people’s performance. Thoughtful workplace design can be a powerful tool for supporting employee performance. Strategies that support productivity also tend to enhance employee health and wellness — they’re all related.

How can the workplace better support human performance in today’s knowledge work economy? How can the workplace support all of the different activities, including collaboration, deep thinking and mentorship?

These five elements are especially relevant for designing for the workforce of today and tomorrow:

  1. Access to Nature, Views and Daylight
  2. Noise Control
  3. Human Factors and Ergonomics
  4. Choice
  5. Employee Engagement

1. Access to Nature, Views and Daylight

People generally prefer to be surrounded by nature, where they can experience variety and sensory changes. It is important to replicate the instinctive bond between humans and other living systems in interior environments. It is also beneficial for people to spend time outside, even for limited time, during the day.

  • The presence of daylight and windows, as well as opportunities for active and passive contact with nature, sensory change and variability, positively impact well-being.1

  • Daylight helps people regulate circadian rhythms, the daily cycles of waking and sleeping hours. When these rhythms are upset, people experience stress.2

  • When allowed to choose, people want to be at a height that allows them to look down. They prefer open, savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and shrubs and they want to be near a body of water, such as a river or lake. They pay enormous prices for these views.3

Workplace Strategies:

  • Organize the floor plate to maximize natural light. For example, place enclosed spaces in the core of the building and open spaces at the perimeter

  • Use glass in areas where visual privacy is not required

  • Give areas with “nice views” to shared spaces

  • Provide outdoor areas for use by employees. Encourage people to go outside for short breaks

2. Noise Control

Noise is an issue in most workplace environments. Interestingly, noise can enable or diminish productivity, depending on individual preferences and the type of work being done. The key is allowing people to control noise by providing access to a room with a door and acoustical separation.

  • Perceived noise (discernible by the average human ear) is typically higher in open office environments, but this depends on how a space is organized, the materials and the nature of the work.

  • When employees have some control over the noise in their environment, distracted by it.4

  • Noise interruptions during simple, mundane tasks can actually provide the stimulation people need to keep going. Interruptions during complex work, however, require a longer period of time to re-orient, and continued interruptions are likely to have negative effects on mood that reduce the motivation to resume work.5

  • According to the US General ServicesAdministration’s recently published guide to workplace acoustics, “Office acoustics is a key contributor to work performance and well-being in the workplace. The ability to find quiet times and places is essential to support complex knowledge work, while the ability to have planned or spontaneous interactions without disturbing others is necessary for team work and relationship development. Having speech privacy is necessary for confidential interactions and work processes.

  • ‘Acoustical comfort’ is achieved when the workplace provides appropriate acoustical support for interaction, confidentiality and concentrative work.”6

Workplace Strategies:

  • To achieve a non-intrusive level of speech privacy, designers recommend absorption through acoustical ceiling, fabrics and carpet; blocking through furniture systems, panels, walls, partitions and screens; and covering through sound masking. To achieve the best result, integrate all three strategies.

  • Try to separate busy, centralized and noisy spaces from quiet areas. Create opportunities for people to come together without disturbing colleagues.

  • Define policies for employees to be able to reserve both quiet and collaboration space.

3. Human Factors and Ergonomics

Workplaces designed for and around people are more likely to be comfortable and flexible while promoting productivity. They take into account the needs and limitations of the people who occupy them. “Human factors” is an area of workplace psychology that focuses on topics including ergonomics, workplace safety, reduction of human error, product design, human capability and human-computer interaction. The terms “human factors” and “ergonomics” are often used interchangeably.

  • According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, people in the U.S. report musculoskeletal diseases, including back pain, arthritis, bodily injuries and osteoporosis, more than any other health condition. In 2004, the estimated total cost of treatment and lost wages associated with musculoskeletal diseases was $849 billion, equal to 7.7 percent of the gross domestic product.7

  • Using social media, HOK conducted a workplace survey involving 3,600 professionals across multiple industries. An overwhelming 82 percent of respondents reported experiencing a physical ailment at work. The most common complaints — neck, back and shoulder pain — were typical for workers sitting for long periods. About half of the respondents complained about pain in the neck, back or shoulders, while one-third reported headaches and eye strain. Workers who stand for long periods of time at their job complained of hip, leg and foot pain. The survey comments indicate that most of the complaints result from poor ergonomics or from being overly sedentary.8

  • The American Cancer Society released a report in the American Journal of Epidemiology stating that men who sat for six hours or more a day in their leisure time had an overall death rate that was nearly 20 percent higher than men who sat for three hours or less in the 14-year follow-up period. Women who sat for more than six hours a day had a death rate that was almost 40 percent higher. Dedicated exercise had no neutralizing effect.9

Workplace Strategies:

  • Provide adaptable furniture such as adjustable chairs, task lights, sit-to-stand desks and keyboard trays so individuals can adjust their workspaces to meet their needs. Provide training that helps employees properly use the furniture.

  • Provide technology to enable mobility and efficiency in all work settings.

  • Encourage employees to use the stairs by displaying calories burned or time saved. Use clear signage directing people to the stairs.

  • Provide incentives to encourage movement both in the work environment and outside of the typical workday. An employee competition measuring steps taken per day is a fun, healthy way to create buzz.

4. Choice

Today’s knowledge work requires high levels of concentration, collaboration and everything in between. Well-designed workplaces provide opportunities for both and all individuals to choose when and how to use them.

  • Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts,” has caused a not-so-quiet response from knowledge workers everywhere. She said in an interview, “A ‘best office’ is one that would give people a choice of how much stimulation is coming at them at any one time. I would create an office that has lots of nooks and crannies, but also lots of zones where people can come together and schmooze and hang out. Another thing is that when people work on projects, there should be more of a tolerance for people working on their own. The individual members need to be able to go off by themselves and do their own things and have a lot of autonomy

  • Environmental psychologist Sally Augustin says, “When we don’t feel in control of what happens to us in a place, we are stressed, discouraged and frustrated. Feeling in control is the key here; we don’t have to actually exercise control to reap psychological benefits.”10

Workplace Strategies:

  • Provide a variety of on- and off-site work settings to support a variety of work functions.

  • Provide technology that allows workers to connect and collaborate more effectively, both in person and virtually. Consider a mix of teleconference, video conference, web conference, instant messaging, social media and other tools to enable different teams to communicate.

5. Employee Engagement

There is a direct correlation between employee engagement and worker satisfaction that affects productivity and innovation.

  • Engaged employees are more productive, more profitable and safer than less-engaged employees. They create stronger customer relationships and stay longer with their company. Engaged employees are likely to be a company’s best source of new ideas.11

  • Studying 7,939 business units in 36 companies, Gallup researchers found significant connections between employee satisfaction/engagement and the business unit outcomes of customer satisfaction, productivity, profit, employee turnover and accidents.12

Workplace Strategies:

  • Provide work spaces that enable visibility, openness and greater employee mobility to foster engagement. When workers can see each other, they are more likely to connect and collaborate.

  • Provide collaborative spaces that incorporate the five “Cs”: coffee, CNN or some other background “buzz,” circulation, connectivity and comfortable seating. These five characteristics are particularly successful for “hub” or central pantry spaces on the floor.

  • Engage teams in the design of their workspace. Even allowing teams to make small choices in their space, technology or workplace protocols can increase satisfaction and productivity. The best workplaces are the product of integrated design strategies that support performance, health and wellness in different ways for all types of users. Ultimately, flexibility, choice and a recognition that we all work differently helps create a happier, healthier, more productive workforce.


1Heerwagen, Judith H., Ph.D., “Design, Productivity and Well Being: What Are the Links?,” March 12-14, 1998.

2Augustin, Sally, PhD., Place Advantage, 2009.

3 Kellert, Stephen R., Judith H. Heerwagen, Martin L. Mador, Biophilic Design, Edward 0. Wilson, Chapter 2: The Nature of Human Nature, Wiley, 2008.

4A. Kjellberg, U. Landstrom, M. Tesarz, L. Soderberg, and E. Akerlund, “The Effects Of Nonphysical Noise Characteristics, Ongoing Task and Noise Sensitivity on Annoyance and Distraction Due to Noise at Work,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16 (1996): 123—136.

5 F. R. H. Zijlstra, R. A. Roe, A. B. Leonora, and I. Krediet, “Temporal Factors in Mental Work: Effects of Interrupted Activities,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72 (1999): 163—185.

6 “Sound Matters: How to Achieve Acoustic Comfort in the Contemporary Office,” U.S. General Services Administration, GSA Public Buildings Service, December 2011.

7“The Burden of Musculoskeletal Diseases in the United States: Prevalence, Societal and Economic Cost,” a joint project of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American College of Rheumatology, American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, Arthritis Foundation, National University of Health Sciences, Orthopedic Research Society, Scoliosis Research Society, and the United States Bone and Joint Decade.

8“Using Facebook to Transform the Workplace,” HOK, 2012.

9“Leisure Time Spent Sitting in Relation to Total Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of US Adults.” Alpa V. Patel, Leslie Bernstein, Anusila Deka, Heather Spencer Feigelson, Peter T. Campbell, 5 Susan M. Gapstur, Graham A. Colditz, and Michael J. Thun. Am J Epid Published online July 22, 2010 (DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwq155).

10Augustin, Sally, Ph.D., Place Advantage, 2009.

11“Engaged Employees Inspire Company Innovation,” The Gallup Management Journal, 2006, New York, NY.

12 Harter, James K.; Schmidt, Frank L.; Hayes, Theodore L., Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 87(2), Apr 2002, 268-279.

About the Author

Leigh Stringer is a senior principal and director of innovation and research in HOK’s Washington, DC, office. Leigh is responsible for shaping HOK’s innovation, research and benchmarking efforts related to workplace, change management, master planning, technology and on-site services. She is the author of the book, “The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment and the Bottom Line,” and is the founder of, a blog covering workplace issues, green design and upcoming green policy changes, and co-founder of