Don’t stand so close to me: how the wrong office layout can make people stressed

Work related stress has many causes but one of the least commented on is the infringement of personal space.

Acoustically, visually and physically - the effects of personal space infringements can be significant, so it’s worth taking time to understand how people tick and consider the implications of modern office designs, including shrinking space standards. Work-related stress is easily the biggest cause of working days lost in the UK. According to the Health and Safety Executive Annual Statistics Report for 2011-2012,  of the 27 million working days lost last year, around 10.4 million of them were due to stress. While the reasons for this are usually attributed to the demands made on us by employers, the erosion of the barriers between work and the rest of our lives and pressure to perform, there is another factor that has come into play over the last few years. As workstation sizes have contracted in response to new technologies and new planning models, people have been forced closer to their colleagues, meaning that not only has their time been eroded, so has their space.

The now universal use of flat computer screens and laptops along with new ways of designing offices allow furniture designers and space planners to work dramatically increase the occupation density of buildings. According to recent research by the British Council for Offices we’ve seen something like a net space saving of up to 20 per cent and 25 per cent per person in the space of around five years.

Now this may make good for the bottom line but without proper management it may overlook that rather less mutable element of the workplace; its people. Human beings are incredibly sensitive to pressure on their personal space. So sensitive in fact that it is possible to measure to the inch the point at which they feel it is being violated.

Violations of personal space are likely to provoke strong reactions in people including feelings of anger, stress and embarrassment. The devil in this particular detail lies in the response people have to their environment and the people around them. The HSE’s own definition of stress sees this as a two-sided equation which takes into account both the pressure on an individual and their response to it.

Design has a role to play in this  as well as good management. When it comes to sound, it’s important to distinguish between types of noise and to address the layout of the office accordingly to ensure that there are minimal opportunities for people to be exposed to the kinds of sounds that distract them or drive them nuts.

And remember that some noise in an office is good. It gives an impression of busy-ness and makes people feel they belong. We’re not after barrenness, sterility and silence. We are striving for balance. Other people may drive us mad, but we’re still social creatures and isolation is far worse. That is why it is so important to understand the culture of each workplace before deciding on its design, the way it is managed and the specification of the products used to help provide this balance.