Perfecting the art of office design remains a work in progress.

Though architects and planners have been incorporating innovative design principles for decades to try and adjust to the evolving preferences of workers, keeping employees happy in the workplace can be an elusive goal, says a New York Times Magazine article by Nikil Saval.

Here are three lessons from more than a century of changing office design, as cited by the Times.

1. Efficiency isn't everything.

In a 1917 paper entitled "Scientific Office Management," author W. H. Leffingwell suggested that a water fountain placed in the wrong spot in an office could cause employees to walk tens of thousands of miles per year unnecessarily. Many offices therefore relied on efficient design that focused relentlessly on productivity--often using rows of separated desks that allowed for an open flow of moving bodies. Workers, however, despised the utilitarian environment created by such an ultra-efficient layout, yielding an important lesson: Don't design your office in a way that reduces your employees to numbers.

2. Don't go overboard with the open layout.

Startups and giant corporations alike want to find ways to encourage more collaboration, but open-plan layouts are no magic bullet. In 2013, 50 percent of employees working in open layouts reported that they were negatively impacted by their loss of sound privacy, while 30 percent cited a need for more visual privacy, according to a study from The Journal of Environmental Psychology. So if you're going to go the open layout route, make sure to incorporate some form of privacy for your team.

3. Focus on "ethical" design.

Design company Teknion published a paper last year about office design and "ethonomics," a combination of ethics and economics that can be applied to encourage workplace happiness. "The idea is that design--by softly coercing people into walking more and being more active, incorporating nature through bountiful plants and better lighting, and creating environments that evoke many different textures and moods through the use of varied materials--can help foster the new 'ethical workplace,'" the Times writes. Simply stated, to inspire your workers, promote physical activity within a bright, varied setting.

One of the newest issues related to office design is how outfitting your workers with gadgets like tablets can make it almost too easy to take one's work home. While you want to design your office in a way that makes the best use of technology, you should also encourage your employees to have work-life balance. One way to do this could be instituting a policy that discourages the sending of work emails after hours. 

"The office has persisted," the Times writes, "becoming even bigger, weirder, stranger: a symbol of its outsize presence in our lives."

Published on: Mar 1, 2016