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Even in the back office, looks matter

Anne Wallace AllenI’ve always wondered about the grey-and-white theme so common in the offices where I’ve worked over the years. Who chooses these colors? Why do some of us spend our days in such drab surroundings? With limited access to natural light, no less?

As it turns out, we don’t have to. Thanks to the new focus on wellness at work that is making its way through the HR departments of companies large and small, health professionals are taking a new look at how our surroundings affect us. They’re convincing the decision-makers of a fact that has long been known by the people in the cubicles: Small things like more open space, natural light and color really make a difference.

I’d noticed this change in thinking about office interiors a few years ago on trips to other cities. And of course, some Idaho companies have invested in gorgeous interiors. But I didn’t know the extent of it in Idaho until we started putting together the first edition of Square Feet, our new quarterly magazine about local construction and real estate.

The October Square Feet, which comes out today, is focused on sustainable building and design. That covers a large spectrum of building practices, from geothermal water systems to permeable sidewalk pavers to rooftop plantings that insulate in summer and winter.

In the course of researching all this, I learned that there are many Boise decision-makers concerned not only with our impact on the environment, but with creating office interiors that are energizing to workers, not depressing.

One impressive standout is the city of Boise Human Resources Department, which in a 2014 remodel used a local designer and a local furniture company to lower cubicle walls, add a stylish color scheme, and make sure all the workers – not just the managers – were able to enjoy the natural light coming in from the building’s expansive windows.

Another is Micron. While Micron is large and moves slowly, when it does make improvements to the worker experience, those changes ripple across the world, touching 30,000 employees including 7,000 in Boise.

Micron’s wellness coordinator, Marni McDowell, comes up with design changes aimed at improving work surroundings and helping people move around more.

Among them: McDowell has added signs at the elevator directing people to the stairs if they want to take them instead and has created walking paths with markers on the walls of Micron’s long corridors. The company has added some color to its monochromatic palette with a few accent walls and columns. McDowell said research shows adding pops of color improves mood and productivity. And it makes offices look more modern, she said.

“Our whole mantra is innovation, and it just seems like bright colors support that theme,” she said.

Most research on office design and its impact on focuses on things like layout and communication dynamics. There’s a huge body of evidence that natural light keeps workers awake, alert, and happier. But there’s limited research on whether color actually affects mood and performance. Yvette Earl, employment services coordinator at the city of Boise’s human resources department, surveyed workers after her department’s extensive office remodel, and said positive comments about the new access to natural light dominated the responses.

Earl added that many of the people in the 25-person department had worried before the remodel that doing away with individual offices and opening up the space would create privacy problems and lead to a messy, disorganized workplace. The department went from 13 private offices to none, and increased the number of conference rooms from two to seven.

But workers generally praised the new colorful surroundings and community feel, Earl said.

McDowell, too, said it’s clear that access to natural light is an important goal. It’s expensive to make the kind of changes that bring light into a building. But it’s worth it.

“People do better in life if they are healthy and happy,” McDowell said.

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.


About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.