The Happy Office

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 23, 2014

Our personal workspace is shrinking. According to new data, the average square foot per person in the workplace dropped from to 225 in 2010 to 176 in 2012. Globally, more than half of companies expect each worker will have less than 100 square feet to call their own by 2017; North American workers were projected to average 151 square feet by then. Which makes how we use that space even more important.

A study from the American Society of Interior Designers found that employees who are happy with their physical workspaces are 31 percent more likely to be satisfied with their jobs. And happy workers are more productive. Here are six ways to optimize your office space:

Maintain a “messy wall.” Yes, work toward mess! A neat desk is nifty and something to strive for—research shows that people with tidy, organized work areas are more likely to make healthier lifestyle choices in general—but a bit of clutter can inspire creativity.

In one study, a group of college students was randomly split, placed in two different office environments and asked to perform certain tasks. Afterward they were offered an apple or a chocolate bar as a snack. The students who worked in the minimalist, orderly offices were much more likely to choose the fruit than their peers, who had toiled in offices littered with papers and books. And in another study, messy-office folks performed better on creative assignments and came up with significantly more ideas.

Find a balance by carving out some wall space—perhaps with a large whiteboard or corkboard—where you can pin inspirational photos, jot down ideas and hang those random memos.

Get a plant. It’s not just general clutter than can promote creativity. Many studies, including one conducted at Texas A&M University in 2003, show significant increases in mental productivity by workers in foliage-filled spaces.

While any type of plant or flower works, John Brubaker, a performance consultant who helps companies maximize their office space, prefers bamboo. It’s one of the best air-purifying plants, he says, helping to filter out formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene and more from your stuffy office environment. (And it’s very difficult to kill!)

Light it right. Sunlight is naturally energizing, but a window office isn’t always possible. So what’s the best type of lighting for your office? The flickering fluorescent lighting of old can cause headaches and irritability, neither of which is conducive to getting work done. Desk lamps or task lights give uneven light and are more likely to create glare on your computer screen, both of which can cause eye strain.

Instead, choose overhead lighting with compact fluorescent bulbs that are labeled “daylight balanced” or have a color temperature of at least 5,000 K. These lights most closely mimic the sun’s rays. Still, remember to get outside and see actual sunshine every few hours for optimal productivity.

Create your own privacy. The majority of all offices today are designed with an open-plan layout, which is great for keeping costs down and promoting employee communication, but it can be hard to focus on your work when you can constantly hear (and see) co-workers’ activities. Invest in a white-noise machine or noise-canceling headphones for when you really need to buckle down.

Organize your desk. “Only keep what you need to work on a daily basis in your immediate desk area,” says Kristin MacRae, owner of Organizing in RI, a consulting business in Coventry, R.I. And get rid of those horizontal file sorters, she says; they’re what she calls “clutter drop-spots” where important papers just get buried. Her favorite desktop accessory? The AdjustaView Desktop Reference Organizer, found at It allows you to flip through and find important documents without upsetting a mountain of paper.

Sit pretty. “Most employees’ No. 1 complaint about their office space is an uncomfortable chair,” Brubaker says. He recommends that everyone get fitted for the right chair the way you would for a tailored suit. Buy office chairs that are fully adjustable and then bring in a physical therapist to work with each employee to get the seat height, armrest height, lumbar support and back angle just right. While you are seated in front of the computer, your feet should be flat on the floor, the top of your screen should be at eye level or just below, and your elbows should be close to your  sides.

A good chair fit minimizes neck and eye strain, back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome, “and it just makes you feel better about walking into your office and sitting down every morning,” Brubaker says.

Stand sometimes, too. Recent research shows a connection between time spent sitting at work and decreased mental well-being. People who sit more at work are more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI), too, and are more inclined to sit even when not in the office. During a typical workday, we spend an average of five hours and 41 minutes sitting at our desks.

Try to reduce your daily “sit time” by taking conference calls standing up and walking to your co-worker’s office to talk rather than emailing or calling. If you can, incorporate counter-height work stations in your office where you or your employees can plug in and do a bit of upright work. Or try sitting on a balance ball chair with a base for part of your workday. These chairs engage your core muscles and reduce spinal compression.

 Make your workspace respect your body—follow our guidelines to combine ergonomically smart design with regular breaks.