Freedom to Design Can Create More Joy at Work


Over the past century, researchers have conducted hundreds of studies on the psychology of work. Meanwhile, businesses have collectively spent billions of dollars on architecture, interior design, and employee experience consulting, hoping to crack the code of what makes people work best.

But, as it turns out, what we need to be creative and productive at work is actually pretty simple.

According to research, ping-pong tables and smoothie bars aren’t the keys to igniting innovation, nor are blank utilitarian cubes or minimalist open floorplans what drive workforces to get more done. Instead, what people need to feel and work their best is autonomy.

Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Workspaces

In the late 1800s, rapidly evolving technology and increasing demands for mass-produced goods drove heavy competition within the industrial sector. Business leaders often became fixated on boosting productivity to leap-frog their adversaries.

To boost worker efficiency, a mechanical engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor proposed a theory he called “scientific management.” Among other things, Taylor’s approach called for autocratic leadership and spartan-like open floorplan workspaces where managers could closely monitor employees.

Efficiency reportedly increased (though the data is shaky). And despite criticism that these methods strip workers of autonomy and often incentivize employees to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of production, Taylorism pervaded.

But a 2010 study at the University of Exeter challenges the Taylor approach, concluding that stark, impersonal, and employer-controlled workspaces actually lower productivity.

In the study, psychologists divided participants into four different work environments:

  • Lean (spaces that were stripped down to the most basic functions).
  • Enriched (spaces decorated with plants and art).
  • Empowered (spaces designed by employees).
  • Disempowered (spaces designed by employees, then redesigned by “managers”).

Then researchers asked participants to complete tasks to assess productivity and questionnaires to assess job satisfaction and physical and psychological comfort. According to the results, people in lean spaces were the least productive (a whopping 32% less productive than those in empowered environments). They also reported the lowest well-being of all conditions. And while people in enriched spaces fared better than those in lean spaces, they still lagged behind those in empowered environments in almost every category.

In other words, people with autonomy over their workspace tend to be happier, healthier, and more productive than those in heavily controlled, Taylorist-style environments.

Focusing on Zones to Create an Ideal Work Environment

The Exeter study shows people do best when they can design spaces to their liking—but what does an ideal work environment look like?

In my book Tracking Wonder, I walk through three zones that make for a holistic and creative work environment:

  • The Conceive and Design Zone
    Also called the “Dream-It-Up” Zone, this is the space where you spread out all of your maps, sketches, and ideas to see the big picture. I use a large table, but you might prefer a second monitor or digital whiteboard tools like Miro or Mural.
  • The High-Focus Zone (The “Get-It-Done” Zone)
    This is a space where you should eliminate distractions so you can buckle down, knock out tasks, or make headway on a project. My high-focus zone is a standing desk because it helps my executive functioning. For others, it could be any quiet and uncluttered space of their home or office, or just a good pair of sound-blocking headphones.
  • The Reverie Zone
    Everyone needs a place away from their desk where they can pause and engage in deliberate daydreaming. For me, it’s a chaise lounge in the corner of my study, but your reverie zone may be a balcony, courtyard, or window. I consult with small businesses and companies on how to create Employee Reverie Zones on a budget.

The best part of this approach to workspace design is that you don’t need a lot of square footage or a large budget to achieve it. People who take my workshops and teams of employees in our trainings often create all three zones using many things they already have.

Simple Changes You Can Make to Enhance Your Workspace

If you’re unsure about what to change to create a more inspiring and productive work environment, consider these questions. If you answer “yes” to two or more within a zone, that spot likely needs your attention:

The Conceive and Design Zone

  1. Do you value the idea conception and formation but lack space to spread out your resources, notes, and ideas?
  2. Do you need space to conceive, form, and pull together ideas?
  3. Do you wish you felt more playful and open-minded in exploring your ideas in action?

Ideas: Use a second monitor, a visual whiteboard such as Miro or Mural, a flip-chart sheet on a wall with Post-its, a file holder with inspiring articles, or fill a corner of your desk with inspiring objects or photos related to your big idea.

The High-Focus Zone

  1. Do you value action but often get distracted from your work?
  2. Do you often waste time trying to find the supplies necessary for a task?
  3. Do you feel low in energy, focus, or confidence when approaching an endeavor?

Ideas: Leverage a make-shift standing desk, blank wall, or desk with just the core tools at your disposal. You could also use focus apps such as SelfControl or Freedom.

Reverie Zone

  1. Do you value deliberate daydreaming?
  2. When fatigued, do you often “zone out” with digital distractions instead of “zone in” with deliberate daydreaming?
  3. Do you lack space where you can relax in a creative way?

Ideas: If reclining furniture is not an option, use a balcony, backyard, or window spot, or take jaunts outdoors.

As you begin designing your zones, I encourage you to start small. Take one step at a time, then pause to notice how your mind responds to the new zone. Over time, you can refine and optimize your workspace in whatever way helps you feel and think best.


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