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5 Ways to Create a Healthier, Happier Office

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It's no secret that a person's professional environment affects their overall productivity in the workplace. Take communal workrooms, which have been hailed for breaking down barriers -- both literally and figuratively -- between employees. But now that the bloom is off the rose, the positive effects of these wall-less offices are slowly being overshadowed by their less desirable qualities.

Meanwhile, traditional floor plans present challenges of their own, with workers tucked away in private offices or cubicles, which have come to represent the old way of doing business. As a result, employers and office providers are having to strike a balance between too much and too little privacy while accommodating an increasingly mobile, and global, workforce.

Whether you're designing a new office or simply looking for ways to improve your existing space, here are five things today's professionals are looking for:

1. Variety of workspaces: Gone are the days of the self-sufficient, go-it-alone worker. Today, companies of all sizes are placing a greater emphasis on teamwork and collaboration. This doesn't mean employees want to work in one big room, however. In fact, research has shown that open offices can actually have negative effects on employee health and productivity.

A 2011 Danish study of 2,400 employees found that occupants of two-person offices required 50 percent more sick days than occupants of single-person offices, a figure that went up as the number of people working in a room increased. People in open offices also tend to be less satisfied with their work environments than those in private workspaces, according to a recent New Yorker report. Much of this dissatisfaction can be tied to productivity. While open offices can foster a sense of connectedness, they often have negative effects on employees' attention spans and creativity due to constant interruptions from colleagues.

Instead of large, open workrooms, today's professionals are looking for flexible spaces that facilitate concentration, collaboration and socialization. These include private offices and phone rooms for individual projects; conference rooms of varying sizes for group work; and cafeterias, lounges and other common areas for networking opportunities. Offering a mix of formal and informal settings allows employees to choose the space that best accommodates whatever task they're working on, either individually or with a group.

2. Customization: Giving employees control over their work environment has been linked to higher levels of productivity in the workplace. A 2010 British study found that workers who were able to decorate their own office were nearly a third more productive than individuals who were not allowed to personalize their workspace. Other research has shown that something as simple as a bright paint color can foster creativity and improve a person's mood.

Allowing workers to add personal touches like plants and photos while providing them with more permanent features like adjustable thermostats, window treatments and furniture creates a work environment that's both inviting and comfortable, making it easier for them to focus on the task at hand.

3. Technology: Advancements in technology and communications have revolutionized the way people do business. No longer do they have to be in the same room - or even the same country - to have a face-to-face meeting. As a result, a growing number of employees are choosing to work remotely, whether it be from a satellite office, coffee shop or their own home. In 2010, 13.4 million people, or 9.4 percent of U.S. workers, reported working from home at least one day a week, up nearly 35 percent from a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

These changes have made workplace technology more important than ever, as it lays the foundation for innovation and collaboration in today's global business environment. It's important that conference rooms and other meeting areas are equipped to handle everything from video conferencing to interactive presentations that can be pulled from the web or mobile devices. This allows workers to easily collaborate and seamlessly transition from home to office without missing a beat.

4. Lighting: Exposure to natural light has been found to improve a person's sleep and overall quality of life, boosting their performance in the workplace, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University. Individuals who worked in offices with windows slept an average of 47 minutes longer than those in windowless offices and had higher levels of activity, the study found.

Designing a floor plan around natural lighting sources is an easy way to keep workers healthy, happy and productive in the office. The use of frosted or texturized glass in doors, sidelights and walls preserves privacy while allowing sunlight to penetrate interior corridors and offices that would otherwise be artificially lit.

5. The unexpected: When designing an office, it's important to meet practical needs while thinking outside the box. Researchers have found that people who exercise and spend time outdoors tend to be more productive and creative in the workplace, a finding that employers and office space providers can take advantage of when planning a space. This could be done through new gadgets like treadmill or bike desks that allow workers to burn calories while they check email or surf the web, or through special amenities like an on-site gym or outdoor seating area where people can work, eat and socialize.

The inclusion of unexpected features and design elements can help put a unique stamp on an office, ensuring it's memorable to everyone who visits or works there.

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Frank Chalupa is president and co-founder of Amata Office Centers, Chicago's largest privately owned office suites provider. Founded in 2002, Amata offers an array of full- and part-time office solutions to businesses of all sizes. For more information, visit www.amataoffices.com.