Office designers are familiar with the body of knowledge demonstrating how the design of office environments can influence key employee behaviors that impact business performance and earnings. Studies have shown that design choices can affect employee productivity, communication and knowledge sharing, creativity and innovation, and overall sense of job satisfaction and well-being, as well as rates of illness, absenteeism and retention. These design choices include:

  • office layout
  • color
  • access to daylight and nature views
  • personal control over one's work space
  • ambient environment (e.g., temperature, task lighting)

Now, researchers have uncovered links between the physical environment and subconscious drivers of decision-making. Their findings have important implications for the design of conference and board rooms and other work spaces where critical decisions are made.

That ambient temperature and light levels affect our mood is well documented. Since mood can influence our outlook and thinking, these researchers were interested in exploring how differences in ambient variables such as temperature and light might affect individuals' choices and decision-making processes.

What they found is that these factors are linked to biochemical reactions in the body that, in turn, can affect the degree to which one relies more on cognition or emotion in arriving at a decision. Because these effects take place at the subconscious level, the individuals are not aware that their physical surroundings may, in part, be influencing their decision.

Researchers at Baruch College in New York City and the National University of Singapore conducted a series of experiments to explore whether the tendency to thermoregulate (that is, to get warmer if feeling too cold or to cool down if feeling too warm) affected decision-making.

They found that individuals in an uncomfortably cold environment tended to make more emotionally based decisions in order to psychologically and physically warm themselves. Likewise, individuals in an uncomfortably warm environment tended to rely less on their emotions and more on cognition or reason in order to cool themselves down. Thus, they conclude, it is not the present ambient state but the desired ambient state that affects the individual's choice.

In another set of experiments involving temperature and light levels, Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, found that a brightly-lit room made occupants feel warmer, both physically and emotionally, and that, in turn, affected how they perceived others. Subjects in a brightly lit room were more likely to find others who acted out more aggressive and those deemed attractive were considered even more so.

Consequently, observes Labroo, "A light's brightness could even make a difference in negotiations." Turning up the lights might help make a sale, while dimming the lights might defuse a heated argument.

Results of a pilot study led by Jungsil Choi of the department of marketing at Cleveland State University, show that warm colors can have a similar positive effect as warm lighting. In one experiment, a person standing against a warm background was perceived to have a warmer personality than when standing against a background with a neutral or cool color.

Another experiment revealed that nurses' perception of warm ambient colors in a hospital setting produced a more favorable impression of the facility and made them more willing to take on an additional role.

In addition to controlling artificial indoor lighting, access to daylight also should be considered. Neuroeconomists Paul Glimcher and Agnieszka Tymula studied the effects of luminance levels on risk and choice behavior. Noting that "at an economic level, there is also now some direct evidence that light levels influence human choice," they cite evidence that changes in weather have been correlated with the performance of financial markets, such as, returns are lower on cloudy days.

They found that exposure to more sunlight results in a more positive mood and leads to more conservative behavior when assessing risk. They also discovered that higher luminance levels were associated with an increased optimism and tolerance for ambiguity, thus making them more risk averse.

The researchers point out that the effects "do not fundamentally change behavior," but collectively — as in a stock market or corporate meeting can affect the overall outcome of decisions made. Still, they conclude, exposure to luminance levels may very well impact on our everyday decision-making. They also note that without access to daylight, "achieving the necessary level of luminance requires special high-intensity lamps specifically designed to imitate both the intensity and spectrum of outdoor lighting."

Taken together, these findings indicate that office designers should pay special attention to lighting options, including access to daylight, when designing and specifying lighting for conference, board, meeting and team work rooms. Having adequate lighting and being able to control lighting levels can be important environmental contributors to good decision-making.