Can we tailor workplace design more closely to personality types?

New research shows that exposure to nature in the workplace benefits the creativity of employers who are more open to experience. Can we make the personalities of users really count in office design?

The prospect of coordinating office design with the personalities of probable users has long intrigued architects and strategists trying to add value to the work environment.

Now, a new study from an international research team provides evidence that personality type is a factor in how natural elements at work can affect the cognitive processing and creativity of employees.

An in-press paper for the Journal of Management reports on a mixed-method study combining two online experiments in the US with field studies in Taiwan, Indonesia and Canada. The study was by the University of Georgia’s Pok Man Tang with colleagues from London and Hong Kong.

Drawing on attention restoration theory, the research team discovered that contact with natural elements at work can have relatively immediate effects on broadening employee cognition, also that workers with a higher openness to experience are more likely to reap the creative benefits of contact with nature.

Contact-with-nature conditions described and tested in the study included seeing nature outside, being in nature, and having plants in view, for example.

Big Five personality traits

Tang and team’s findings can be integrated with previous research based on the ‘Big Five’ system for categorising human personalities (for more information on the Big Five, read here). The Big Five personality parameters are extraversion-introversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A quiz to determine Big Five scores can be found here.

Testing the personalities of workspace users – and designing for specific personality traits – can be challenging for a host of reasons. Nevertheless, there is a history of research linking user personalities and workplace design elements. For example, Fingerman and teammates (2022) report on studies which determined that extraverts favour spaces that support social contact, that openness to experience can be tied to use of more unique design options, and that those who are conscientious prefer clean, up-to-date environments.

Level of outside stimulation

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), shares that ‘introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well: introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.’ Extraverts and introverts are thus likely to prefer and flourish in workplaces with very different environmentally induced energy levels.

Little (2014) provides additional information on extraverts and introverts: ‘Differences in extraversion reflect differences in the arousal level of certain neocortical areas in the brain: those high in extraversion have low levels of arousal, whereas introverts have high levels. Given that effective performance on daily tasks requires an optimal level of arousal, extraverts are typically seeking to increase their levels of arousal, whereas introverts are trying to lower theirs.’

Personality and space

Lindberg, Tran and Banasiak (2016) found that individuals scoring high on extroversion rated their performance in enclosed and exposed work-space environments similarly, whereas introverts rated their performance in enclosed environments higher than their performance in exposed environments.

In later research, Lindberg and teammates (2021) probed ‘how personality levels interacted with workstation type (open bench seating, cubicle, private office) on task focus and happiness.’ While private offices helped everyone to focus, the researchers discovered that certain affordances of open bench seating were more beneficial to momentary focus and happiness for employees high in extraversion, who tend to be highly social, talkative and assertive, but detrimental for those high on neuroticism, who tend to be anxious, depressed and moody.

Oseland and Catchlove (2020), using an online survey, determined that ‘Introverts are more in favour of private offices and least prefer open plan, agile working and hot-desking compared to extroverts’. Both introverts and extraverts gave relatively high ratings to working at home.

Augustin and Weidemann (2016) found that ‘Extraverts select to do solo work requiring concentration in more communal environments than introverts, and also seem more concerned about the comfort of visitors to their workstation than introverts. Extraverts also felt that they would do their current job well in more visually energising environments than introverts.’

‘Extraverts also felt that they would do their current job well in more visually energising environments…’

Hartog and colleagues (2018) collected data through a questionnaire distributed among users of 17 different multi-tenant offices. They discovered that users who are more extraverted, open to new experiences and more agreeable were overall more satisfied with the multi-tenant office characteristics.

Read more of the latest research insights from Sally Augustin in Research Roundup, her regular column in the Innovation Zone here.

Research Sources

Sally Augustin and Sue Weidemann. 2016. ‘Hot Spots or Havens? Aligning Workplace Design with Personal Factors to Enhance Wellbeing,” In P. Desmet, S. Fokkinga, G. Ludden, N. Cila and H. Van Zuthem (Eds.). Celebration and Contemplation: Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Design and Emotion, The Design and Emotion Society; Amsterdam, pp. 66-73.

Susan Cain. 2012.  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Crown: New York.

Karen Fingerman, Yijung Kim, Shiyang Zhang, Yee Ng, and Kira Birditt. 2022. ‘Late Life in the Living Room:  Room Décor, Functional Limitations, and Personality.’ The Gerontologist, vol. 62, no. 4, pp. 519-529.

Lizanne Hartog, Minou Weijis-Perree, and Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek. 2018. ‘The Influence of Personality on User Satisfaction:  Multi-Tenant Offices.’ Business Research and Information, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 402-416.

Casey Lindberg, Erica Baranski, Brian Gilligan, Julia Fisher, Kelli Canada, Judith Heerwagen, Kevin Kampschroer, Esther Sternberg and Matthias Mehl. 2021. ‘Personality and Workstation Type Predict Task Focus and Happiness in the Workplace’.

Casey Lindberg, Diemtrinh Tran, and Meredith Banasiak.  2016. ‘Individual Differences in the Office: Personality Factors and Work-Space Enclosure.’ Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 105-120.

Brian Little.  2014. Me, Myself, and Us. Public Affairs; New York.

Nigel Oseland and Mark Catchlove.  2020. ‘Personal Office Preferences.’ Proceedings, The Transdisciplinary Workplace Research Network Conference, September 16-19, Frankfurt Germany.

Pok Tang, Anthony Klotz, Shawn McClean, and Randy Lee. ‘From Natural to Novel: The Cognition-Broadening Effects of Contact with Nature at Work on Creativity.’ Journal of Management, in press.

Sally Augustin is a practicing environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago. She provides regular scientific commentary for the Academy’s Innovation Zone on new academic research in work and workplace.
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