© 2008 University of Sydney. All rights reserved.
Architectural Science Review
Volume 51.2, pp 97-108
Invited Review Paper
Towards an Environmental Psychology
of Workspace: How People are aﬀected by
Environments for Work
Jacqueline C. Vischer
Research Group on Environments for Work, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Montreal, C.P. 6128
Succursale Centreville, Montreal, Quebec H3C 3J7, Canada
Corresponding author: Tel: (1-514) 343 6684; Fax: (1-514) 343 5694; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Received 31 March 2008; accepted 29 April 2008
Abstract: Inquiry into how people experience environmental conditions at work is a growing area of study. Until the
1980s, there was insuﬃcient research on ‘workspaces’ –and on oﬃce environments in particular – to warrant review.
Since that time, the range and number of studies of workspace have burgeoned. is paper will identify and review
the main themes and ﬁndings of this area of research with the objective of deﬁning basic parameters and prevailing
theories of the environmental psychology of workspace. ese will generate questions and directions for future research
Keywords: Ambient environmental conditions, Ergonomics, Functional comfort, Furniture, Health and safety, Oﬃce buildings, Oﬃce layouts,
Productivity, Satisfaction, Territoriality, User participation, Workspace
Evidence from commercial leasing agents, oﬃce furniture
manufacturers the design professions and building contractors
indicates that some new knowledge is ﬁnding its way into the
real estate industry as commercial building owners and tenants
demand better quality workspaces for their employees. Until
recently, the design of oﬃce buildings adhered to a 19
model of work (Duﬀy, 1997). Workers who are asked to perform
rather than to think, who are brought together in space and
time so that they can be supervised, so that they have access to
necessary tools, and so that there is a clear barrier between work
and their other activities, occupy standardized and often uniform
workspace. Formerly in the form of factories, contemporary
workspace is more likely to be in the form of oﬃces, and reducing
occupancy costs is a key driver of design decision-making (Vischer,
2007a). With the changes in the 21
Century world of work, few
of these conditions are still valid. Tools for work have radically
changed, and advances in computers and tele-communications
mean that people no longer need to be ﬁxed in space and time
to work together. Barriers between work and personal life are
breaking down as people seek career opportunities rather than
jobs, work at all hours, make a social life at work, and sleep and
eat at work if necessary. What may now be called workspace
is diversifying, mobile work and non-territorial workspace is
increasing, and companies are applying quality as well as cost
criteria to workspace design (Becker & Kelley, 2004; Preiser &
As part of these changes, conceptualization of the
environments for work is shifting from the notion of workspace
as a backdrop – that is, passive setting – for work, to the concept
of workspace as an active support to – and tool for – getting
work done (Newsham, 1997). One of the results of this shift
is the growing interest in how building occupants behave as
a function of workspace features. As the research reviewed
in this paper suggests, evidence is mounting that employees
may waste time and energy trying to cope in poorly designed
workspace and that employers are increasingly concerned that
their employees invest their energy in work and relationships
rather than in coping with adverse or uncomfortable workspace
conditions. In reviewing some of the knowledge accrued to date
on how workers interact with and are aﬀected by environmental
I have always tried to avoid using “oﬃce” or “oﬃces” in titling any of my work, books or articles. I ﬁnd the word limits the notion of the
diversity of work spaces and only inspires yawns. People think of boxes with windows or partitions. “Oﬃce” is in my view a dated concept. I
use workspace because the domain of study includes all types of space in which people do work. While much of the research has in fact been done
in oﬃce buildings, the broader concept of “workspace” includes places to meet, to use technology, public spaces where work occurs, amenities to
support work, and so on, as well as oﬃce-type workspace in places like hospitals, universities and numerous other contexts.
Architectural Science Review Volume 51, Number 2, June 2008
Table 1: Proposed Typology of Research on the Environmental Psychology of Workspace.
features, this paper groups ﬁndings from workspace research
according to, ﬁrst, the aspect of workspace studied, and second,
to the type of outcome measure or research result identiﬁed.
us, the environmental aspects of workspace include ambient
environmental conditions (noise, lighting, air quality, thermal
comfort), furniture layout and ergonomics (workstations,
oﬃces and shared amenities), and process issues, such as user
participation in design, and meeting business and organizational
objectives. Behavioral or outcome measures common in work
environment research include employee satisfaction, employees’
feelings about their work environment as expressed in the
sense of territory, ownership and belonging, and employee
productivity. Most work environment studies can be organized
into the typology identiﬁed in Table 1.
Linking the satisfaction and productivity categories is the
notion of comfort, speciﬁcally functional comfort. A three-
way deﬁnition of the concept of comfort has been applied
to numerous ﬁeld studies of oﬃce buildings; it posits that
people need to be more than simply healthy and safe in the
buildings they occupy, they need environmental support
for the activities they are there to perform (Vischer, 1996).
is notion of functional comfort goes beyond the more
traditional concept of comfort based on measurements of
users’ responses to varying environmental conditions. e
latter may focus, for example, on temperature and relative
humidity for thermal comfort, air speed and freshness for
ventilation comfort, and brightness, contrast conditions
and luminance for lighting comfort (Cheng & Ng, 2006;
Odemis, Yener & Camgoz, 2004; Ozturk, 2003; Rowe,
2004). e results of many comfort studies, using feedback
from occupants as well as sensitive environmental measuring
devices, form the basis for environmental standards in public
buildings. e concept of functional comfort, however, links
the psychological aspects of workers’ environmental likes and
dislikes with concrete outcome measures such as improved
task performance and team eﬀectiveness.
Environmental Psychology of Workspace
How workspace is designed and occupied aﬀects not
only how people feel, but also their work performance, their
commitment to their employer, and the creation of new
knowledge (human capital) in the organization. ese are
the cornerstones of the domain known as the environmental
psychology of workspace (Vischer, 2008). Moreover, measures
of user perceptions of environmental conditions can be used to
diagnose building performance and the eﬀectiveness of building
systems (Vischer & Fischer, 2005). e focus of this paper,
then, is on the behaviour of building occupants, behaviour
in this context being a broad term covering not only people’s
actions and responses but also attitudes, feelings, expectations,
values and beliefs. In this context, it is useful to think of the
user-environment relation as dynamic and interactive: that is to
say, that part of the user’s environmental experience includes the
consequences of any user behaviour that may occur. e user
is not a passive receptacle experiencing the built environment
statically, as input; the user’s experience of the environment is
itself transformed by the activities she is performing in that
environment: the relationship might better be characterised as
transactional (Moore, 1980; Vischer, 2008). is paper will
review research results clustered into three broad categories of
user satisfaction and functional comfort, territoriality or sense
of belonging, and productivity, and will indicate how these
results have practical applications to design, construction and
management of buildings in which people work.
Satisfaction and Functional Comfort
How satisﬁed or not users are with the space they are
occupying is a notion that has guided environmental evaluation
since its earliest eﬀorts (Craik, 1966; Friedman, Zimring &
Zube, 1978; Little, 1968). It refers to the processes whereby
users know and judge their physical environment. e basic
premises state that the processes of environmental knowing and
assessing are linked not only to observable physical features,
but also to the attitudes individuals have towards a particular
space. Evaluation research, such as post-occupancy evaluation,
seeks to determine the extent to which certain environmental
characteristics aﬀect users’ satisfaction or dissatisfaction; they
have been carried out in oﬃce environments since the 1980s
(Marans & Spreckelmeyer, 1981; Ornstein, 1999; Stokols,
1978; Wineman, 1986).
e earliest post-occupancy evaluations of oﬃces used
extensive survey questionnaires of building users to identify what
what occupants ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ about their work environment,
on the assumption that measuring users’ self-rated satisfaction
with individual features helps to understand the eﬀects of the
built environment on users. Studies of occupant satisfaction imply
that this concept is a de facto measure of building quality: users
feel positive (satisﬁed) about good quality built space, whereas if
they are ‘dissatisﬁed’ the place is not performing or has somehow
failed. Studies of users’ satisfaction levels in oﬃces have generated
extensive knowledge of workers’ preferences but relatively little
additional understanding of building performance. Most post-
occupancy evaluations question occupants on their perceptions
and judgments of workspaces in terms of the “perceived
qualities” of the place. Evaluation in this sense includes two
essential elements: the functional characteristics of the space
that lend themselves to measurement, and are considered factors
inﬂuencing the performance of workers; and the qualities of a
place that cause users to consider it satisfactory or unsatisfactory.
us, surveys of occupant satisfaction in speciﬁc buildings
indicate which features are preferred and which are disliked by
occupants (Walden, 2005; Windsor, 2005).
One of the most consistent ﬁndings from user surveys
is that oﬃce workers are dissatisﬁed with the ‘open plan’
oﬃce, whether this is due to noise levels, distractions, lack of
privacy or the sameness of ‘cubicles’ (Churchman, Stokols,
Scharf, Nishimoto & Wright, 1990; Hedge, 1986; Oldham,
1988; Sommer & Steiner, 1988; Sundstrom, Herbert &
Brown, 1982). However, the prevalence of this ﬁnding has
not prevented employers from favouring the open plan - in
part because it is cheaper to construct and more ﬂexible to
reconﬁgure than a conventional private or cellular oﬃce layout,
and in part because workstations occupy less square feet than
private oﬃces. A more useful question to ask is to what degree
are workers supported in the performance of their tasks in open
workstations – in other words, to what degree is their ability to
work aﬀected? Studies show that, on the positive side, open
workstations facilitate communication and enable workers to
exchange information rapidly and informally. On the negative
side, the open environment can generate distractions that
prevent workers from concentrating on their tasks.
A large number of work environment studies have tested
users’ satisfaction in reference to speciﬁc workspace features
(Becker, 1981; Brennan, Chugh & Kline, 2002; Hedge, 1991;
Humphries, 2005; Veitch, Charles, Newsham, Marquardt &
Geerts, 2004). ese studies show that people’s preferences are
aﬀected by, among other things, indirect lighting, mechanical
ventilation rates, access to natural light, new furniture, and
aspects of the acoustic environment, as well as some degree of
participation in decision-making. According to this approach,
environmental satisfaction is implicitly a measure not only of
workspace eﬀectiveness or success, but also of job satisfaction,
in spite of the lack of proven connections between them. As
a result, occupant satisfaction has become the main yardstick
by which workspace features are evaluated, with many studies
falsely assuming a direct link between users’ level of job or
workspace satisfaction and their eﬀectiveness or productivity
(Karasek & eorell, 1990).
Some studies have gone beyond the simple ‘if-then’ logic of
how satisfaction is aﬀected by physical features to developing an
approach to environmental evaluation that is more responsive
to the concept of place as an interactive system composed of
both physical and social elements. is model posits space
as a resource in terms of its inherent potential to make any
social system function (Moos, 1973; Perin, 1970; iel, 1997).
In applying this approach to work environment evaluation,
researchers have examined links between workspace design and
the organization of work, and attempted to demonstrate ways
in which space can be considered an organizational resource
(Fischer, 1983; Fischer & Vischer, 1998; Kampschroer &
Heerwagen, 2005; Seiler, 1984).
e concept of functional comfort links users’ environmental
assessments of their environment to the requirements of the
tasks they are performing; this goes beyond general ﬁndings
on what people like and dislike, and towards assessing building
performance (Vischer, 1989, 1996, 1999). It was developed
Architectural Science Review Volume 51, Number 2, June 2008
to respond to the limitations of measuring user satisfaction by
applying feedback from users to the performance of building
systems. While building users’ physical comfort refers to meeting
the basic human needs, such as safety, hygiene and accessibility,
without which a building is uninhabitable, functional comfort
is deﬁned as environmental support for users’ performance
of work-related tasks and activities. Appropriate lighting for
screen-based work, ergonomic furniture for computer users,
and enclosed rooms available for meetings and collaborative
work, for example, help ensure users functional comfort at
e diﬀerence between a supportive and an unsupportive
workspace is the degree to which occupants can conserve their
attention and energy for their tasks, as opposed to expending it
to cope with adverse environmental conditions. For example,
certain variables such as lighting, ventilation and noise can,
under certain conditions, generate stress, which, in turn, has
a negative eﬀect on productivity (Evans & Cohen, 1987).
is is further discussed, below. e obverse of this argument
holds that an environment conducive to the performance of
work improves performance and morale (Dewulf & Van Meel,
e functional comfort approach makes human judgements
the focus of study, thereby avoiding the temporal and calibration
limitations of instrument-based data collection. However,
researchers may take measurements of building systems
performance as a follow-up procedure to help understand
the meaning behind the feedback yielded by users on their
perceptions of building conditions. Traditionally human
comfort measurements have been linked to individual building
systems (lighting, ventilation, temperature) in order to enable
standards of comfort and health to be established, and thus to
guide the design of buildings. Functional comfort is deﬁned by
the degree to which workers can perform their tasks in the place
they occupy; it is derived from notions of comfort as deﬁned
by environmental standards, with the added precision that users’
experience of comfort varies with the requirements of the tasks
they have to perform. erefore, one of the outcome measures
of diagnostic evaluation of functional comfort is whether people
can perform tasks easily, with diﬃculty, or not at all in the
workspace occupied. e diagnostic approach was designed to
learn more about how people work and how space aﬀects work
performance, as well as to understand the impact of changing
oﬃce technologies on the performance of work and on space-
use. Data on users’ functional comfort provide a diagnostic
yardstick for designers, planners and managers; systematic and
reliable feedback from occupants takes the form of a simple,
accurate proﬁle of user comfort in a given work environment.
is approach yields a more precise deﬁnition of how workers are
aﬀected by their space than users’ satisfaction ratings.
Balancing environmental demands with the skills and abilities
of users to act on their environment is a way of deﬁning optimal
workspace for creativity and ﬂow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). e
concepts of positive stress (Selye, 1979) and of environmental
competence (Lawton, 1980; Sternberg, 2001) are both useful
in this context, in that they recognize that some environmental
challenge is necessary to ensure active engagement. A workspace
cannot be designed to be a one-time, ﬁnal, and permanent
ergonomic support for all oﬃce tasks, but rather needs to be
adaptable and ‘negotiable’ to be most supportive to users. Users
need the skills and opportunities to engage with and adjust
their environment successfully, over time and with changing
task requirements, in order to optimize comfort and manage
workspace stress successfully (Vischer, 2007b).
Territoriality and Belonging
Several studies identify a sense of belonging (appropriation),
along with loyalty or commitment to the organization and
a sense of territory, as outcome measures of environmental
studies because a sense of belonging or ownership is a better
measure of environmental quality or success than either
satisfaction or eﬀective task performance (Fischer, 1983;
Sundstrom & Sundstrom, 1986). Unlike user satisfaction,
sense of belonging is linked to employee commitment to and
retention in the organization – results that have a direct eﬀect
on company operations and costs. Territoriality at work goes
beyond the physical attributes of spaces occupied by individual
workers (Davis & Altman, 1976). e sense of ownership,
or occupying territory, is aﬀected by how team and shared
workspace is deﬁned, as well as characteristics of individual
workspace. It is also aﬀected by participation in design
decisions and feeling ’empowered’ in regards to environmental
decision-making. Users’ experience of territoriality, control
and appropriation combine as ‘psychological comfort’: one of
three types of environmental comfort according to which the
users’ experience of workspace can be organized (Vischer, 1996;
Vischer, 2005). Physical comfort refers to basic human needs
such as safety, hygiene and accessibility, which must be assured -
usually through applying existing building codes and standards
- so that users ﬁnd their environment habitable. Functional
comfort, as mentioned previously, refers to the degree to which
their environment supports users’ tasks. At a more abstract level
but equally important to users at work is psychological comfort,
including feelings of belonging, ownership and control over the
workspace (see Figure 1).
Psychological comfort links psychosocial aspects of the
worker with the environmental design and management of
workspace through territoriality, privacy and environmental
control (Vischer, McCuaig, Nadeau, Melillo & Castonguay-
Vien, 2003). e primary component of psychological
comfort is sense of territory, both individual territory (oﬃce,
workstation, micro-workspace) and group territory (team,
group, midrange workspace). Human territory at work has
psychological value that is represented both by space for one’s
work and by one’s place in the organization. Underlying these is
a human behavioral schema that expresses itself in terms of the
personalization and appropriation of space: marking territory
and constructing boundaries of social and environmental
control (Fischer, 1989; Sundstrom, Town, Brown, Forman
& McGee, 1982). Territorial ownership aﬀects employees’
interaction with the environmental milieu (Steele, 1986).
Workspace personalization and space appropriation behaviors
have become more noticeable in oﬃces where denser and more
open oﬃce conﬁgurations have been installed (Wells & elen,
2002). e introduction and use of new technology and better
virtual communications tools have also aﬀected workers’
perceptions of and attitude towards their physical environment
and workspace (Cascio, 2000; Lai, Levas, Chou, Pinhanez &
Environmental Psychology of Workspace
Viveros, 2002). Territory is not simply made up of the walls and
doors that enclose space; territoriality at work is also aﬀected by
sense of privacy, social status and perception of control.
Studies have found that people moving out of private
enclosed oﬃces into open workstations judge their environment
more negatively, citing lack of privacy, acoustic conditions,
and conﬁdentiality problems (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline,
2002; Rishi, Sinha & Dubey, 2000). ese reasons are given
irrespective of whether or not their work is conﬁdential, and
whether or not they need to be alone to perform tasks eﬀectively.
Complaints about lack of privacy abound in before-and-after
studies of workspace change, independent of physical features
of the workspace such as furniture conﬁguration and partition
height (Wineman, 1986). On the other hand, data collected
from professionals in open workstations who were not faced
with an imminent or recent move indicated that the demands
of the job are more important than individual privacy (Kupritz,
1998). e need for privacy seems to be only indirectly related
to workspace design and to depend on psychological factors,
such as concerns about status and control.
Environmental control – and users’ perception of control –
aﬀects workers on at least two levels: mechanical or instrumental
control, and empowerment (Vischer, 2005). Experimental
eﬀorts to increase users’ control over environmental conditions
provide evidence of beneﬁcial eﬀects on workers, including
one experimental design that found a clear association between
participation in design decisions and degree of workplace
satisfaction following a move to a new facility (Niemala, Rautio,
Hannula & Reijula, 2002). Environmental control can be
mechanical, such as chairs and worktables that are raised and
lowered, shelving and tables on wheels to be moved around,
switchable lights, and a door to open and close. Evidence
indicates a positive psychological impact from this type of
control in situations where employees are informed and even
trained to make use of the controls available (Newsham, Veitch,
Arsenault & Duval, 2004; Tu & Loftness, 1998). Another
form of environmental control is empowerment: increased
opportunities for employees to participate in workspace
decision-making. Access to such opportunities increases users’
perceptions of having some control over their environment and
is a constructive response to the need for psychological comfort.
is helps people cope with environmental demands and
encourages workers to ﬁnd new ways of solving environmental
problems, so that they also increase their learning and knowledge
about their building and workspace. Empowerment as a form
of environmental control increases opportunities for employees
to both participate in and be listened to in workspace decision-
making, and means they are better informed. Lack of control
over workspace has been described as demotivating and leading
to ‘learned helplessness’ (McCoy & Evans, 2005). Several
studies demonstrate that psychosocial control by means of
user participation in the design process has a positive eﬀect on
people’s response to and feelings about their workspace (Lee
& Brand, 2005; Veitch & Newsham, 2000). Environmental
empowerment is directly linked to psychological comfort.
People who are informed about workspace-related decisions,
and who participate in decisions about their own space, are
more likely to feel territorial about their workspace and to have
feelings of belonging and ownership (Vischer, 2005).
us notions of appropriation and belonging are
psychosocial aspects expressed through territoriality at work.
A sense of territory is associated with feelings of belonging
and ownership, and privacy is best understood as the need
to exercise control over one’s accessibility to others (Altman,
1975). Finally, some studies have demonstrated a connection
between users’ psychological traits and their reactions to the built
environment at work. In focusing on cognitive processes, this
research orientation links up with a well-established paradigm
of social psychology, namely Lewin’s ﬁeld theory (1951). It
addresses the eﬀects of users’ individual diﬀerences and how
workers’ evaluation of their workspace aﬀects their perception
of themselves at work (Somat, Tarquinio & Dufresne, 1999).
Not only do employees’ cognitive and aﬀective processes aﬀect
their perception and evaluation of their work environment, but
their perception and assessment of their workspace also aﬀect
their view of themselves as workers and of their professional
eﬀectiveness (Fischer, Tarquinio & Vischer, 2004). A study
comparing open with enclosed oﬃce users showed that
Figure 1: Environmental comfort model of workspace quality.
Architectural Science Review Volume 51, Number 2, June 2008
extraverts respond more positively to more possibilities for
communication, and therefore do better in open oﬃce settings
than workers with more introvert personalities (McCusker,
Productivity and the Performance of Work
Many studies have sought to make direct links between the
environmental design of workspace and worker performance
or organizational productivity.
e concept of ‘workplace
performance’ has come to mean workspace whose explicit
objective is to support the performance of work: a performing
workplace is designed to optimise worker productivity
(Clements-Croome, 2006). e concept of worker productivity
tends to be applied to a whole range of desired behavioural
outcomes in the context of work. A recent review of studies
of the eﬀects of environment on productivity concluded that
confusion about what productivity means has made it diﬃcult
to identify how environmental conditions aﬀect worker
performance (CABE, 2004). Many studies use respondents’
own self-reports of ‘improved’ or ‘reduced’ productivity as the
dependent variable, and studies measuring ‘real’ or quantiﬁable
output per worker or team are few and far between (Oseland,
ere are at least three types of productivity that are
inﬂuenced by environmental design, each of them in diﬀerent
ese three categories are individual, group, and
organisational productivity: each category denotes a variation
in scale of environmental inﬂuence (Vischer, 2006). Individual
productivity is typically evaluated at the scale of the individual
workspace (desk and oﬃce) and on how the micro-environment
inﬂuences individual task performance, that is to say, how fast
and accurately a worker carries out his tasks at work. Individual
task performance is aﬀected by environmental conditions such
as lighting and visual conditions, variations in temperature and
humidity, furniture ergonomics, and, to some degree, acoustics.
Positive individual productivity outcomes mean improved
speed and accuracy of the tasks performed, whereas negative
outcomes might include a higher error rate, slower time for task
completion, or adverse health eﬀects on workers, such as sore
eyes, fatigue or upper respiratory problems.
e productivity of workgroups sharing workspace, such as
a teamwork environment, is typically evaluated in terms of the
quality and quantity of group processes. Teamwork is aﬀected
by the mid-range environment, that of the work-group or team,
and it is measured in tangible terms such as time to market
of a new product, or in terms of more qualitative outcomes,
such as number of good new ideas or good (i.e. successful)
recommendations coming out of eﬀective business processes.
Group process is aﬀected by workgroup size and the relative
proximity of team members (Leaman & Bordass, 1998). Other
environmental determinants of workgroup eﬀectiveness include
the positioning of work areas and shared space, as well as access
to shared tools and equipment (Heerwagen, Kampschroer,
Powell & Loftness, 2004).
A third level of productivity corresponds to the company or
organization’s entire workspace or accommodation – the macro-
environment. ere are many approaches to assessing the degree
to which workspace helps (or fails to help) a company meet its
business objectives and/or increase its competitive advantage.
Organisational eﬀectiveness is aﬀected by locational advantages
and ease of access, balancing consolidation under one roof
(centralisation) with dispersion of diﬀerent groups in diﬀerent
facilities over manageable distances, and by building amenities
such as fast elevators, convenient bathrooms, adequate parking,
and attractive eating areas (Vischer, 2006). Studies have shown
that both worker performance and organisational success is
compromised “when the physical environment interferes with
actions taken towards achievement [of objectives]” (McCoy &
Tools exist to measure environmental impacts on productivity
in each of the three categories. Individual productivity is the
most often measured, using various tools for ergonomic analysis
as well as a wide variety of questionnaire surveys that focus on
the eﬀects on building users of ambient conditions as lighting,
noise levels, furniture comfort, temperature, and indoor air
quality. Team eﬀectiveness studies tend to be more dependent
on anecdotal data, although indirect measures such as analysis
of social networks, ‘gaming’, and comparing outcomes among
comparable workgroups in diﬀerent environments, have also
yielded valuable results (Horgen, Joroﬀ, Porter & Schon,
1999; Stephenson, 1998). A recent review of four of the most
popular methods for evaluating organisational eﬀectiveness
concluded that none is entirely satisfactory, as this is an elusive
concept to deﬁne and measure (Bontis, Dragonetti, Jacobsen &
Roos, 1999). However, some researchers have been successful
adapting the Balanced Scorecard to measure environmental
eﬀects on organisational eﬀectiveness (Kampschroer &
e BOSTI-Westinghouse study was an important advance,
which attempted to link environmental features not just with
levels of satisfaction, but also directly with functional support
to individual workers (Brill, Margulis & Konar, 1985). is
longitudinal study examined employee behaviour before
and after an oﬃce move and attempted to measure the costs
of worker productivity lost through poorly-designed or
dysfunctional workspace; it used employee self-reports of
productivity to measure the impact of features like open oﬃce
design on task performance.
e results showed, among other
things, that employees, especially managers, working in open
plan workstations felt they were more productive in enclosed
e editor has suggested that these relations might best be conceptualised as a model of workplace environmental design factors (eg, ambient
environmental conditions, furniture and oﬃce layouts) as independent variables, with productivity as the ultimate dependent outcome variable
and satisfaction, territoriality and belonging, as mediating variables. is is an interesting line of inquiry that deserves further consideration.
ere are numerous studies of how age, gender, SES and job-rank aﬀect workers attitudes, performance and eﬀectiveness in the work
environment, but very few use the term ‘environment’ to refer to the physical setting. Consequently, most of this research is published in the
industrial and occupational psychology literature and is not included in this review. However, it would make an interesting addition to our
research to study this literature and develop some hypotheses of how these function as moderating variables in the user-space relationship at
work. See, for example, the review by Giﬀord (2007) and the role of moderating variables in a diﬀerent architectural setting.
Environmental Psychology of Workspace
oﬃces. Subsequent studies have attempted to measure the
economic value of workers’ productivity increases that are
considered to result from environmental improvements, such
that the return on investment of an environmental intervention
can be calculated (Brill & Weideman, 2001; Sullivan, 1990).
At about the same time, an overview of studies measuring
the impact of furniture and layout changes on teams working
on assembly line-like paper processing tasks in diﬀerent
organizations indicated extraordinary increases in process speed
and results (Springer, 1986). ese ﬁndings are reminiscent
of the changes in task performance found in the 1940’s in the
famous Hawthorne studies of lighting in factories, suggesting
that any environmental change improves team performance
regardless of its actual eﬀect (Adair, 1984). More judiciously,
several studies conclude that workspace design can be supportive
(have positive eﬀects on work) or non-supportive (have negative
eﬀects on work) as well as aﬀecting organizational performance
(Davenport & Bruce, 2002; Ilozor, Love, & Treloar, 2002;
Klitzman & Stellman, 1989; Stallworth & Kleiner, 1996). e
domain of organizational ecology is a framework for analyzing
organizations according to diﬀerent aspects of their structure
and function, including features of the workspace they occupy
(Steele, 1973). e systems framework of organizational
ecology strengthens the notion that the space it occupies is an
integral part of how an organization functions. Later work has
built on this concept, producing such ideas as ‘workscape’ to
indicate an inclusive approach to both the use and the planning
and design of the work environment (Becker & Steele, 1994).
An increasing number of ergonomically oriented studies
have looked at speciﬁc environmental conditions, such as
ventilation and indoor air quality, lighting and daylighting,
acoustics and noise control, as well as furniture placement
and comfort. In these studies, environmental eﬀects on
task performance, rates of absenteeism and self-reported
productivity are measured rather than users’ satisfaction
ratings. Lighting research, for example, has tended to
distinguish between the eﬀects on building occupants of
artiﬁcial, interior lighting and of natural light or daylighting
from windows. Daylighting research has linked increased
comfort and self-reported productivity with window size
and proximity, as well as with view out, control over blinds
and shielding from glare (Hedge, 2000; Leather, Pyrgas,
Beale & Lawrence, 1998; Mallory-Hill, Van der Voost &
Van Dortmont, 2005). More signiﬁcantly, research on
daylight and views from hospital rooms has been shown to
aﬀect medication requirements and recovery rates (Verderber
& Reuman, 1988; Ulrich, 1991). In their recent overview
of the eﬀects of diﬀerent kinds of artiﬁcial lighting on task
performance and occupant satisfaction in a simulated oﬃce
environment where workers used controls to exercise their
lighting choices, (Boyce, Veitch, Newsham, Myer & Hunter,
2003) concluded that current oﬃce lighting standards are
preferred by most people carrying out typical individual
oﬃce tasks, Boyce et al. e study results made a distinction
between visual comfort – lighting needed to perform well
on oﬃce tasks – and satisfaction, or lighting judged to be
Current studies of noise in oﬃces have adapted techniques
for measuring noise levels in industrial environments. Workers
in open plan workspace tend to judge noise to be a primary
source of discomfort and reduced productivity (Stokols &
Scharf, 1990; Mital, McGlothlin, Faard, 1992). Acoustic
comfort studies have focussed on correlating physical measures,
such as signal-to-noise ratios at diﬀerent densities, background
noise levels and intensities, and speech intelligibility under
diﬀering physical conditions, with occupant judgements of
distraction and annoyance (Ayr, Cirillo & Martellota, 2001;
Chu & Warnock, 2002). Eﬀorts to control oﬃce noise
through more absorbent surfaces, sound-masking systems and
behavioural controls have been weakened by increasing oﬃce
densities and collaborative work in modern workspace.
Studies focussing on ﬂoor layouts and furniture suggest these
factors inﬂuence teamwork eﬀectiveness as well as individual task
performance (Vischer, 2006). Studies focus on the height and
density of workstation partitions, the amount and accessibility
of ﬁle and work storage, and furniture dimensions such as
work-surfaces. ese elements of furniture and spatial layout
have a powerful eﬀect not only on the satisfaction of individual
workers but also on the performance of teams. One study
indicated that the additional investment in ergonomic tables
and chairs for workers, as well as ergonomic training, yielded a
5-month payback in terms of increased individual productivity
(Miles, 2000). Several studies provide evidence that oﬃce
workers are uncomfortable in open plan conﬁgurations and
prefer private enclosed workspace, which may work better for
individual tasks but are less successful for teamwork (Hatch,
1987; Fried, Slowik, Ben-David & Tiegs, 2001; Ornstein,
Andrade, Coelho & Leite, 2005).
Evidence is mounting that the design of their workspace
does make workers more or less eﬀective. However, ﬁnding
out more about how this relationship works should not lead
to ‘social engineering’ solutions, where employers or building
owners apply a recipe for environmental design with a view
to guaranteeing maximum performance from their workers.
It is preferable for employers and decision-makers to use
research evidence to consider environmental design decisions
as investments in the work force. Workspace can and should
be a tool for performing work, much as investing in computer
technology ensures better tools for employees.
While much of the research on which norms and standards
for user health and comfort at work are based has been carried
out in laboratory settings, the most frequent approach to
studying how workspace aﬀects users is questioning the latter
directly. is may take the form of experimental designs
in controlled laboratory settings, where an environmental
condition is varied and subjects provide ratings, as well as in
quasi-experimental settings, such as controlled ﬁeld situations
where building users’ assessments are compared before and
after some environmental change. More commonly, survey
research is applied in uncontrolled ﬁeld situations, either in
the form of eliciting satisfaction ratings as in a conventional
post-occupancy evaluation, or using a standardised survey
questionnaire in order to compare the same data from subjects
across a number of buildings. A variety of ﬁeld-tested tools and
techniques to study workspace behaviour has been developed
in this latter category.
Architectural Science Review Volume 51, Number 2, June 2008
e structure and form of the way users are approached
and the data they are required to yield needs to be precise and
standardised to link user feedback with building performance.
e results yielded by this approach provide a rich and diverse
basis for understanding the user experience (Gann & Whyte,
2003; Leaman & Bordass, 2001; Vischer, 1989, 2005; Zagreus,
Huizenga, Arens & Lehrer, 2004). Data yielded by assessment
tools, whether in the context of post-occupancy evaluation,
design and environmental quality indicators, or building-in-
use assessment, can be analysed both for what they tell us about
building use as well as about building performance. ese ﬁeld
tools are a natural outgrowth of early studies on the sociology
of work, of which a few included the physical setting for
work. Of these, the most important, and still salient today, is
Herzberg’s analysis of factors that inﬂuence worker motivation.
His research established that several key elements of the work
environment inﬂuence worker motivation, and they can be
negative, positive or neutral (Herzberg, 1966). Among these
elements is the physical environment, which can be either a
neutral or a negative inﬂuence on worker motivation. is
implies that if it is supportive of the performance of work, it
is not noticed. e ‘threshold eﬀect’ means that those work
conditions that aﬀect motivation can be measured in terms of
their propensity to move from a neutral, ‘no eﬀect’ category
into ‘negative eﬀect’; there is no ‘positive eﬀect’ category.
Building on this theoretical base, and in line with the
results of functional comfort studies, researcher attention is
being increasingly paid to the concept of workspace stress.
Functional comfort links psychosocial aspects, including
worker motivation, with workspace elements and thereby with
organisational productivity by measuring environmental support
for task performance. e notion of support incorporates not
just receiving support from, but also being able to act on the
environment to achieve a desired, supportive result. e
inverse is also true: where workers’ have to struggle to perform
their tasks because the built environment is problematic, their
situation can be characterised as stressful. In situations where
workers do not feel supported, and indeed have to make an
extra eﬀort to ‘deal’ with environmental barriers or problems
in order to get their work done, they may lose motivation and
experience stress. e deﬁnition of workspace stress is the
degree to which users have to compensate and expend their
own energy performing activities in adverse environmental
conditions (Vischer, 2007b). All built environments for
work can be placed somewhere on the continuum ranging
from completely functionally comfortable to completely
dysfunctional and stressful, using feedback from users at a
given point in time.
In their overview of stress related to the physical work
environment, McCoy and Evans (2005) go beyond ergonomics
Figure: 2: Dimensions of functionally comfortable workspace design.
Environmental Psychology of Workspace
to characterise as stressful those situations where elements of
the physical environment interfere with the attainment of
work objectives. Stressors in the work environment aﬀect
employee performance adversely when they are high intensity
or prolonged; they slow down the individual’s ability to process
and understand the number and predictability of ‘signals’, which
increase with task complexity. Potential stressors (i.e. elements
that interfere with task performance, motivation and social
relationships) include “spatial organisation, architectonic details,
ambient conditions and resources, and view or visual access
from the workspace. As environmental stressors, [these] can
inﬂuence physiological processes, produce negative aﬀect, limit
motivation and performance, and impede social interaction”.
ese physical stressors in the workplace aﬀect workers’ sense
of control and eﬀectiveness. Physical environmental stressors
also aﬀect social relationships, as the negative eﬀects of stressor
exposure reduce “cooperative behaviors, such as social support,
altruistic behaviors, and teamwork” (Evans & Cohen, 1987).
us in addition to satisfaction, comfort and belonging,
the environmental psychology of workspace also includes well
established concepts such as worker motivation and how it is
inﬂuenced by the physical setting, and, more recently, the notion
that some measurable amount of stress at work can be attributed
to the design of the physical environment. A comprehensive
environmental comfort model of workspace quality that
incorporates these and other factors is shown in Figure 3. More
research is needed to link these concepts together and provide a
solid theoretical framework for advancing knowledge through
Conclusions and Directions for Future
While considerable knowledge has accrued from studying
various aspects of the environmental psychology of workspace,
important gaps remain. e structure and content of this area
of research have given rise to some new and important questions
that are fruitful directions for future research. Before exploring
these new directions, we will comment on the development of
this ﬁeld of knowledge to date with a view to strengthening
the theoretical framework and lending greater coherence to
knowledge already acquired.
By comparing research studies looking at diﬀerent aspects
of the work environment, the lack of clarity about outcomes
being measured shows that clariﬁcation is needed to guide
future research. Occupant satisfaction, while oﬀering a broad
and comprehensive measure of environmental quality, is not
a practical outcome measure for workspace research. While
occupants’ self-reports provide data on their needs and
preferences, such studies generate little information about what
supports task completion, what adds value to the organisation,
and why owners and managers should invest in workspace
improvement. However, much has been learned about what
workers like and dislike in their work environment.
Functional comfort, as measured through systematic
feedback from users, invites occupants to provide diagnostic
feedback on speciﬁc features of the work environment based
on what environmental supports they need to perform their
tasks. Decisions to remove, replace or change workspace
features can be based on how well or not they support
occupants’ work and thereby aﬀect the productivity of the
organisation. Structured feedback on ambient conditions can
also be applied to assessing building systems, and subsequently
used to diagnose building problems that are amenable to
intervention and improvement. However, a clearer distinction
needs to be made between measuring user perceptions and
judgements, and measuring actual behavioural eﬀects that
are attributable to physical features. For example, workers’
perceptions of team workspace (e.g. meeting-rooms and
worktables) may not be related to whether or not teamwork
Productivity has also been measured largely in terms of
occupants’ self-reports. ese are subject to more subjective
bias than satisfaction ratings, as respondents are being asked to
make an estimate based on their own feelings. However, there
are some studies where more objective productivity indicators
such as reduced illness rates, increased speed and accuracy of
task completion, and even rate of new ideas generation, have
been used as measures of environmental eﬀectiveness in terms
of productivity outcomes. A new and little explored outcome
measure concerns the eﬀect of the work environment on the
creation and transmission of knowledge in organisations (Von
Krogh, Nonaka & Nishiguchi, 2000). Many companies are
interested in understanding how knowledge accrues in their
organisations and how this process can be optimized. e
concept termed ‘ba’ – an environment that supports and
encourages knowledge creation, not only through the design
of the space but also through the structure and operations
of the social and cultural environment – is now a focus of
research. To date, human capital researchers have focused
on developing a better understanding of ba. is oﬀers a
new and promising direction for analyzing how features of
the work environment add value to an organisation’s human
capital (Nenonen, 2004). Although the concept of ba is only
partly deﬁnable in physical terms, it would be useful to learn
more about how physical settings encourage and support it.
In summary, a rich range of measures of worker productivity
is available, and more diversity is needed to advance this line
of inquiry. As these new directions for workspace research
indicate, worker productivity in the knowledge economy
is less a matter of improving speed and accuracy of routine
tasks and increasingly a function of generating new ideas,
being creative, working eﬀectively in teams, and generating
knowledge that adds value to the organisation.
Finally, the feeling of belonging, as might be measured
through territoriality and appropriation of space, needs further
study owing to the important link with employee retention and
reducing costly turnover in organisations. More information
about how and why certain environmental features aﬀect
employees’ sense of belonging and support constructive
appropriation behaviours will help organisations determine
how and to what degree investment in environmental quality
will aﬀect both recruitment and retention of their employees.
In recent years, as the real estate and construction industry
shifts its attention to sustainability and the environment,
researchers have started to look at the interaction between user
comfort at work and the presence or absence of environmentally
sustainable features (Heerwagen, 2000; Leaman & Bordass,
2007; Vischer & Prasow, 2008). is direction for future
Architectural Science Review Volume 51, Number 2, June 2008
study has two possible lines of exploration: the eﬀects of
sustainable building features, such as natural ventilation,
water recycling and passive cooling technology on occupants
and their work; and the behaviour and behavioural changes
needed and expected from occupants as a result of sustainable
design features in oﬃce and other buildings.
include turning oﬀ lights when out of the room, dropping
blinds on sunny windows to reduce heat gain, and using
public transportation to get to and from work. Anecdotal
evidence already exists of buildings supplied with innovative
sustainable design features that occupants have either not
wanted or not been able to use. ere is also some evidence
that giving occupants a more active role and responsibility
for changing their behaviour in environmentally sustainable
buildings is a necessary condition for success.
e environmental psychology of workspace is a rich and
diverse ﬁeld of study that is growing fast. As human beings
in all parts of the world spend increasing amounts of time
in oﬃces in a wide variety of buildings, the eﬀects of these
environments on occupants’ performance, health and morale
urgently needs to be understood. e knowledge yielded by
research in this ﬁeld will inform employers’ decisions as well as
corporate investments in the work settings they create, and will
assist and improve the building industry as designers, facilities
managers, leasing agents and construction professionals acquire
it. Business managers also need to understand more about
how workspace aﬀects their personnel, as companies need
to become more ‘agile’ and by making ongoing changes to
workspace (Joroﬀ, Porter, Feinberg & Kukla, 2003). Finally,
all indications are that a better understanding of occupant
comfort is a prerequisite for successful sustainability and an
eﬀective impact on global warming.
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