Office planning for a healthy working environment

Are you moving into a new office? Or are you reorganising your current office? It pays to plan well before you get started. When planning, do not make the visual look your main criterion. A lot more needs to be taken into consideration. This is the only way to ensure that the conditions for health and safety at work in the office are optimally fulfilled. Discover important tips about room acoustics, lighting and interior design to ensure a healthy working environment.

1/ Flexible use of space

In order to stretch one’s legs, hold a meeting or focus on work without any distractions, alternative work space is a must for a modern office. These rooms should be designed for maximum flexibility of individual use. For example, with comfortable seating areas for short breaks or informal meetings, with standing desks that can be adjusted in height as a mobile work surface or whiteboards for brainstorming sessions. The article “Sitting is the new smoking – five simple tips to avoid sitting for too long” will tell you why it pays to stand up and move around regularly.

Tip: Did you know that according to a study carried out by Cardiff University, plants promote productivity in the office? Being able to look at plants is good for one’s health, reduces stress and increases the attention span as well as the feeling of wellbeing.1

2/ Ensuring enough room in which to move around and minimum distances

When designing work stations, the ergonomics of more than office chairs and tables need to be taken into account, minimum distances between each piece of furniture must be maintained. This is a particular challenge in small offices. In order to avoid the risk of accidents and inadequate room to move in, the legal minimum for main passageways inside buildings is at least 1.2 metres. Access to work stations may not be less than 80 centimetres wide – and the wider the better.The amount of space each employee has between the edge of their table and the nearest object behind them, such as a bookcase, must be at least one metre.

Tip: The more people that work in an office, the more space is required. This also applies to the walkways. This means you must plan proportionately. Walkways in an office with 20 employees should be proportionately wider than those in an office with five employees. You will find more tips on positioning office furniture in the article Prevention made easy or in the SECO article in German Grossraumbüros – so schützen Sie die Gesundheit der Mitarbeitenden.

3/ Acoustic barriers to regulate noise

Being forced to overhear conversations and telephone calls can be quite a problem. Sometimes it needs only the sound of a nearby colleague’s keyboard for one to lose concentration. In order to protect oneself from ambient noise, there needs to be as much distance as possible between workstations. In addition, the workstations should be so positioned that conversations cause minimal disturbance, for example, that nobody is sitting in the direct line of anybody else’s telephone conversations.

Structural measures such as soundproofing the ceilings and walls can contribute to lowering noise levels. Sound-absorbing partitions in multi-space offices should be at least 1.5 metres high and be placed between workstations, facing the direction in which the employee speaks. A study carried out by SECO showed that in an office with four people, noise increases to a distracting level.

Tip: Acoustics are an issue in open-plan offices. In order to avoid conflict without limiting active communication, the implementation of organisational measures is recommended. For example, establishing rules for telephone calls and brief conversations in the office, organizing workstations especially for focused work, enabling home office, or providing rooms for discussions or telephone calls.

Emergency measures: Sign emergency escape routes correctly!

Creating an emergency response plan for alerts as well as escape routes is part of office planning, as is ensuring that it is clearly displayed. Find out more in the chapter Escape routes in the FCOS Box.

4/ The optimal indoor climate

The indoor climate is affected by various physical factors. In addition to climatic factors, individual factors also play a role as employees all react differently to room temperature and humidity. The type and difficulty of the activity as well as clothing also influence the way the climate is individually experienced. For office activities carried out sitting, temperatures between 21° and 23° can be taken as a guideline. The ideal level of relative humidity for office work is 30-40% in winter and 30-60% in summer. Occasional fluctuations above and below these levels on a few days in the year do not entails any health risks. Avoid draughts caused by fans and ensure that air conditioning systems are set at a level that is never more than 8° below the outside temperature.

Tip: Avoid dry air! It increases the risk of catching a cold. It irritates the skin and eyes – especially for contact lens wearers and leads to higher dust deposits that are bad for the lungs. Plants as well as dishes filled with water distributed around the room increase the level of humidity. Vaporisers are recommended over humidifiers. The high temperatures reached by the former are active in killing any germs in the water that would otherwise spread in the room.

Nieuwenhuis, M., Knight, C., Postmes, T., & Haslam, S. A. (2014). The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(3), 199-214.

Cf. “SECO Grossraumbüros - So schützen Sie die Gesundheit der Mitarbeitenden”, 710.240.D (in German)

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In the seven chapters of the FCOS Box and a series of short video clips, you will find out how to improve health and safety at the office and what needs to be taken into consideration.

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