Despite the amount of research on how to increase productivity by engineering the work environment, the vast majority of companies aren't doing what works.
This is the observation of Ron Friedman, award-winning social psychologist and author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, whom I interviewed for my Business Reimagined podcast.
"I came to recognize that there was a really massive divide between what scientists know are the factors that contribute to motivation, and creativity, and engagement, and how most organizations actually operate," Friedman noted.
Organizations have simply been ignoring the science behind what makes us more effective in the workplace.
Sure, companies may be investing in expensive ergonomic chairs, state-of-the-art noise reduction systems, and high-tech lighting. But many are overlooking what research has shown to be simple yet effective ways to optimize the work environment.
As an example, Friedman pointed out three easy, low-cost, and research-backed ways that organizations can better support their employees:
Let There Be Daylight
Exposure to daylight has been shown to improve work performance.
Friedman cited research where telemarketers were randomly assigned to either a chair by the window or a chair in a window-less cubicle. On average, telemarketers who sat by the window raised $3,000 more per year than their colleagues who didn't have a window.
"Daylight is physiologically healthy for us," Friedman explained. "When we're around daylight our body produces more serotonin which puts us in a good mood, it gets us producing more melatonin which enables us to sleep at night, and you can actually predict how satisfied employees at an organization are by the amount of daylight that actually hits the office floor."
Add Flora to Your Fauna
Another surprising way to increase productivity in the workplace is by surrounding employees with plants.
Employees who were randomly assigned to work in a room with plants out-performed those who didn't have access to plants. In one study conducted in the Netherlands and UK, researchers found that, when employees could see a plant from their desk, their perceptions of air quality, concentration, and workplace satisfaction as well as objective measures of productivity all increased.
There are many possible reasons why plants help us work better. Aside from sucking toxins out of the air, they also help absorb noise, and make the environment more visually pleasing. Plants have also been shown to help people relax.
Be Your Own Decorator
Finally, Friedman cited the very simple act of letting employees decorate their own offices.
People who personalize their workspaces are not only more productive. "They're actually going to like their organization more, they're going to be more loyal to it, less likely to quit," Friedman said.
He hypothesized that, when people have some autonomy in decorating their workplaces, they feel a sense of ownership and identity with it. They identify with the space and become more invested in doing a good job.
Rather than being distractions, photos, doodads, and other personal touches in fact help people work better and feel happier at work.
Friedman suggests giving employees a small budget, say $100, that they can use to customize their workspaces.
So when it comes to designing an optimal work environment, these are only a few of the data-driven practices that have been shown to increase productivity, motivation, and happiness in the workplace. All of them can be worked into any budget; they don't need to cost a lot. And the returns, as science shows, are more than worthwhile.
These things organizations can do to boost workplace productivity may be small, but they can have a big impact.