Productivity is a relative term in any work space, according to the Pantone Color Institute. It depends on who's working and which tasks they are performing.
Research indicates that employees bathed in soothing blue might be more relaxed and collaborative. Add some stimulating red or orange to a conference room, and meetings might move along faster. To keep staff from feeling closed in while toiling in a cramped office, cool, light tones can help make their space seem larger.
As with all interior design, context is everything. Bright, saturated colors in an advertising agency may elicit energy and creativity. But they might seem overwhelming in an oncologist's office, where muted tones can help staff – and patients – focus on their serious tasks.
Workplace color choices can have unintended consequences. Gray, tasteful and neutral may be common for cubicles, but such interiors can make women depressed. A pale green palette, chosen to be soothing and inoffensive, can become annoyingly bland, according to research by furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.
Culture also plays a role. One trucking company in Green Bay, Wis., for example, uses deep greens and golds to excite and motivate its staff. This, after all, is Packers football country.
Is there such a thing as an ideal color scheme for office environments? A national survey of 1,000 office workers found blue to be their preferred hue. One researcher concluded that the perfect palette balances relaxing blue-green with accents of motivating, soft red.
Nancy Kwallek, Ph.D., director of the interior design program at the University of Texas, tested worker productivity in three office spaces in her laboratory. She painted one bright red, another blue-green and a third white. Ninety people worked in the rooms doing various clerical tasks.
She scored the subjects as "high screeners" or "low screeners" – those who could block out their surroundings or those who had difficulty doing so. Workers who ignored their environment were more productive in rooms painted a bright color such as red, Kwallek says. Meanwhile, low screeners tended to feel overwhelmed in bright rooms and were more productive in blue-green environments, which they found relaxing.
What about the white room? In the short term, workers made more errors there, regardless of their screening ability. Over time, however, all-white environments tended not to affect work performance.
Ultimately, individual temperament rules the day, with productivity resulting from how each individual responds to his or her environment, Kwallek says. "There are great variations in sensitivity to one's surroundings."